Bruce Crawford’s Unexpected Movie-Movie Life, Omahan Salutes Classic Hollywood Films with Panache: See Shirley Jones and ‘Carousel” May 24
If you’re a classic movie fan in and around Omaha then the closest thing to a Turner Classics Movie Film Festival in these parts are the twice-a-year revivals that Bruce Crawfort puts on for charities. His next is a May 24 screening of the 1956 movie musical Carousel starring Shirley Jones and the late Gordon MacRae with a special appearance by Jones, who will speak before the film and sign autographs afterwards. The 7 p.m. event is at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are are available at the customer service counter at Omaha Hy-Vee supermarkets.
Also on this blog is an exclusive interview I did with Shirley Jones. You can also find here previous stories I’ve done about Crawford and his film events and guests. The blog features many other film stories as well.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Magazine
When Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford introduces legendary stage-screen star Shirley Jones at a May 24 screening of Carousel it will mark the 32nd time he’s celebrated Hollywood royalty at one of his film events.
The 7 p.m. event will be at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall.
Jones feels the 1956 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Harmmerstein stage classic, Carousel, features some of the great composer-lyricist team’s finest work. She was under personal contract to R & M when she made the picture with co-star Gordon MacRae. “I think it’s the best score they ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful,” says Jones. “I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You’ and I close it with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel and I just think it’s magnificent.”
All the trappings
For 20-plus years now Crawford’s feted classic movies and the legends who made them. He does it in grand style, too. Attending a Crawford event has all the trappings of a Hollywood premiere, complete with red carpet, limos, searchlights, media, VIP guests, costumed reenactors and movie memorabilia displays.
Renowned celebrity pop artist Nicolosi creates original commissioned pieces for the events that the U.S Postal Service now uses to adorn commemorative envelopes and stamps.
Crawford’s programs always benefit a cause. This time it’s the Omaha Parks Foundation. Past beneficiaries included the Nebraska Kidney Association.
He counts Oscar winners among his acquaintances and friends. He particularly close to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Crawford’s work in support of classic film has taken him around the country presenting programs around his first love – movie music. He’s been an invited participant for live programs and filmed documentaries honoring movie icons such as Harryhausen.
His Omaha events attract national media attention and his efforts earn endorsements from organizations like the American Film Institute. Radio documentaries he produced years ago on composers Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann still air worldwide.
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
A life devoted to film
Wherever he goes and whatever he does in service of film is an expression of the intense boyhood fascination with movies he grew up with in Nebraska City, Neb. and later cultivated as a young man.
“It’s been my therapy,” Crawford says of his work. “I would have to say it’s some strange destiny. I look back to when I was a kid and now I can see where it makes sense – I can connect the dots. But to be from a small town in this part of the country it’s so out of the norm, is so alien. It’s just an unusual life.
“And to have gone as far as it has and to be with these people and to have that recognition and reputation for these events is mind boggling. I never would have imagined it would have gone quite so far.”
What began as an avocation is now a career.
“The most meaningful part of it is that I’ve been able to have a career and make my full-time work honoring classic films. That’s been incredibly gratifying for me because I absolutely love doing this.”
Nicolosi, the Chicago-based celebrity portrait artist who’s lent his talents to Crawford events since 2008, says the Omahan’s enthusiasm for classic film is infectious.
“He has such a passion for what he does it’s literally palpable. In any business it all boils down to relationships and there’s a genuine warmth and authenticity about Bruce. He’s the real deal. He has that strong Midwest work ethic. Every event he does feels like a giant homecoming. He’s brilliantly fluent in film, too.
“All of that keeps drawing me back. Plus, I’ve fallen in love with Omaha.”
Ray Bradbury, Greg Bear, Forrest J. Ackerman, Bruce Crawford, Ray Harryhausen
Avocation to career
Crawford’s first event in 1992 paid tribute to Harryhausen. Getting Harryhausen to come for a double-feature of Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island at the Indian Hills was a coup but Crawford had an inside track to him.
“It was still tough to pull off but it wasn’t as tough because I had that rapport with him. There was a connection.”
A bigger coup was getting a week’s run of Ben-Hur for its 35th anniversary in 1993.
“Doing Ben-Hur was off the wall because I had no connection to that film. I knew nobody involved with that in any way. That is the real rosetta stone to this whole thing,” he says.
Crawford, who puts these events together with equal parts chutzpah and doggedness, contacted Ted Turner because the media czar owned the film’s rights. Much to Crawford’s surprise Turner ordered a new print struck of the 1959 classic and allowed Crawford first crack at it. Crawford also got the family of the film’s revered director, William Wyler, to come and secured the support of its star, Charlton Heston.
The success of the Ben-Hur run “set the stage” for what’s come since. His third program, a screening of The Longest Day for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, featured reenactors in military uniforms.
“That’s when the showmanship started,” he says.
For a screening of Psycho he brought star Janet Leigh. For King Kong he anchored a huge inflatable replica of the ape outside the Indian Hills and come show night featured dancing girls in grass skirts. The special guests included Harryhausen and author Ray Bradbury.
Subsequent events featured Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) and John Landis (Animal House).
Some unexpected guests have arrived too. For last fall’s showing of American Graffiti acclaimed director George Lucas showed up unannounced, jetting in from a New York gig on his way back to the west coast. He was spotted by the the event’s official guest star, Cindy Williams, as well as several attendees. For the premiere of Ben-Hur Crawford recalls that Liza Minnelli, who was in town doing an Ak-Sar-Ben show, came incognito wearing sunglasses and a scarf.
Bruce Crawford with Debbie Reynolds
The shows go on
Pulling off these events means countless phone calls and emails getting the details just right. He must please the sponsors and charities he works with as well as cater to his special guests..
“But above everything else I feel a commitment to the audience. I want to make sure people enjoy themselves and have a good time. That’s my biggest goal.”
He hasn’t missed a beat yet.
“I’ve been lucky enough to get films and guests that always find a very sizable audience. The events just keep coming together, but I don’t take anything for granted.
Nicolosi’s come to appreciate Crawford’s imagination and tenacity.
“The secret to his success is his passion. He has such a clear vision and, in an endearing way, a stubbornness, which you need. Then nothing can get in your way.”
As soon as Carousel’s over Crawford, ever the showman, will be thinking what to do next and how to top what he’s done before.
Tickets for the May 24 event are $20 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee customer service counters.
On May 24 a Hollywood legend comes to Omaha for a one-night only screening of the 1956 film Carousel, in which she stars with Gordon MacRae. It’s the latest classic Hollywood tribute event from Omaha film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford, who’s previously brought Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, and Debbie Reynolds, among other movie legends, to town. The Carousel event is at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The program, done up in the style of a premiere, starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the customer service counter at Omaha Hv-Vee supermarkets.
In my Q&A with her Jones discusses many aspects of her remarkable career, including the Cinderella story of how she came to be discovered by the great composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who put her under personal contract and launched her career. Jones is an easy interview. Down-to-earth, smart, funny, and unafraid to tell it like it is. She would be fun to hang out with.
Shirley Jones Interview: Classic Hollywood Star to Appear at May 24 Omaha Screening of ‘Carousel’
Interviewed by Leo Adam Biga
©Exclusive for the blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com
LAB: Let me start by saying that Carousel is one of my favorite musicals.
SJ: “Mine too. It’s my favorite score. I think it’s the best score they (Rodgers and Hammerstein) ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful.”
LAB: That’s obviously saying a lot given who were talking about here.
SJ: “I know, exactly, but that’s my feeling and by the way my opinion was shared by Richard Rodgers. He always stated that he felt his finest work was Carousel.”
LAB: What do you feel makes it stand apart?
SJ: “Well, just all of it, the lyrics. I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You ‘and I close with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel. And I just think it’s magnificent. ‘The Carousel Waltz,’ the opening, is so beautiful. I mean, I’m not saying everybody would feel that way, but I do, and as I said Rodgers always stated that he felt that way too.”
LAB: Rodgers and Hammerstein became very close mentors of yours.
SJ: “I was under contract to them.”
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
LAB: And were you the only one they had under contract?
SJ: “The only one, the one and only person put under contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it was supposed to be a five-year deal. It lasted about four years, I guess, under which I did the movie Oklahoma, then I did the stage production all over Europe of Oklahoma with jack cassidy as my leading man. That’s how we met. And then I came back to do Carousel. Before all that though I was in my first Broadway show, South Pacific. It was the first thing I ever did – the last four months of the Broadway production – and then a show called Me and Juliet, which I went on the road with. So I did all of those under the contract of R & H, and then it was over.”
LAB: Why were they responding to you so strongly? You were after all very young and green and a total unknown.
SJ: ”Very, very young, I was 18, I was barely out of high school and on my way to college to become a veternerian. Oh yeah, that was the story, and I stopped off in New York with my parents. This was July. I was going to college in the fall. I’m from the Pittsburgh area and I’d done a lot of work at the Pittsburgh Playhouse during the summers when I was in high school. I was the youngest member of the church choir at age 6, so it was a gift that was given to me. Anyway, I went to an audition while I was in New York with my parents, an open audition. I knew this pianist in New York and he said, ‘Shirley, c’mon over, R & H are having open auditions for anybody that wants to sing for them because they had three shows running on Broadway at that time and their shows ran so long they had to keep replacing chorus people every few weeks. But I barely knew who these men (Rodgers and Hammerstein) were, you understand. I was a little girl from a town of 800 population. It was all very new to me.”
LAB: Was the audition run by John Fearnley?
SJ: “That’s exactly right, it was through him. People were waiting around the block holding their music. My friend and accompanist talked me into doing it. I said no at first because I was terrified. But I got to the stage, sang for the casting director and he did the usual, you know, ‘Miss Jones, what have you done?’ and I said, ‘Nothing,’ and he said, ‘Mr, Rodgers just happens to be across the street rehearsing his orchestra for Oklahoma (which was about to reopen at City Center and then go out on another tour) and I would like to have him hear you personally.’ And he cancelled the rest of the auditions for the day.
“So I waited. Again I wasnt sure who I was singing for and down the aisle walks this gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones?,’ and I said, ‘What did you say your name was again?’ Richard Rodgers. I sang for him and he said, ‘Miss Jones, can you wait about 20 mins? I’m going to call my partner Oscar Hammerstein at home and have him come and hear you.’ Now my pianist said, ‘Shirley, I hate to do this to you…’ But he had a plane to catch. He said, ‘I can’t wait,’ and Richard Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we’ll think of something.’Here I am alone, my first audition anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I waited and 25 minutes later down the aisle comes this very tall gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones, do you know the score of Oklahoma?’ and I said, ‘Well, um, I think I know some of the music but I don’t know the words,’ and of course I’m talking to the lyricist you understand. He said, ‘Nevermind, I have a score here.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Hammerstein, my pianist had to leave, I don’t have anybody to play,’and Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we have the full City Center Symphony across the street.’
“Now can you imagine, I’d never heard a symphony, seen a symphony, let alone sing with one. They took me across the street, I held the score in front of my face so I couldn’t look at them and I sang ‘Oklahoma’, ‘People We’ll Say We’re in Love’ and ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ with the City Center Symphony. Three weeks later I was in my first Broadway show (South Pacific). So that’s how it happened.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma
LAB: You can’t make up something like that.
SJ: “No, you can’t, and you know xomething. I’m not sure it could even happen today. It was one of those fluke things that fortunately happened to me but I don’t i think it could ever happen in today’s times.”
LAB: Were there specific things in you they were responding to?
SJ: “Oh sure, well you know I was Laurie, I was from a little town, a little farm community. I was that girl. And the fact that I could sing. I could. As I said it was a gift. I’d studied. I mean, I could always sing but I started formal study when I was about 13 and I had a coloratura soprano voice. My teacher wanted me to go into opera because it was that kind of a voice but you know this music just came so natural to me. And the fact that the character was so close to who I was. And the fact that I had an incredible director for my first motion picture, Fred Zinneman. It was wonderful. That helped a lot.”
LAB: You felt fortunate to be in his hands?
SJ: “Oh, I cannot tell you how fortunate that was for me because I’d never done a film of any kind. And when I did the screen test…I had to screen test for it. They sent me to Calif. and fortunately Fred directed the screen test, which was unusual, because usually they have an assistant director do it, and Gordon (her costar Gordon MacRae) was in the test with me. He was already cast. And so from that standpoint it was all just wonderful because when I finished the screen test Fred said, ‘Have you ever acted before a camera before?,’ and I said, ‘Oh no,’ and he said, ‘Well, don’t change anything, you’re a natural,’ and from then on he was my mentor. I workedd with a lot of directors but there’s just a few that I just absolutely adored and because they thought of the actor, they were with the actor. It wasn’t just – put your hand here and speak, it was giving actors a reason for things and he was certainly a big one at that.”
LAB: R & H really handled you with care.
SJ: “They put me in South Pacific first to keep me with them and decided to sign me so I wouldn’t go to work for somebody else and then sent me to Calif. to screen test when I was in Chicago with Me and Juliet. Two wks later I get this phone call and its Rodgers and he said, ‘Hello, Laurie?’ So that’s how it happened.”
LAB: That had to be one of the most amazing screen debuts ever, an iconic part, iconic music. That music is going to endure forever.
SJ: “That’s for sure.”
Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry
LAB: The movie was a huge hit and with your very first film you were a star.
SJ: “Yeah it just happened so quickly for me, it really did. But the truth of the matter and this is what I say in all my interviews…I went on to do Carousel but at that point pretty much they stopped making musical motion pictures and Rodgers hated Hollywood. He didn’t want to be here. They produced Oklahoma themselves, that was their production, they were on the set every single day in Nogales, Aarizona, where we shot it. But Carousel was 20th Century Fox and that was the end of the musical until way later when Music Man came to be.
“My career was over because at that particular time when you were a singer they didn’t consider you an actress and you know I hadn’t done anything but that and they didnt make musicals anymore. So I went into television and fortunately they were doing Playhouse 90 and Lux Theater and Philco Playhouse and I did a Playhouse 90 with Red Skeleton called The Big Slide and Burt Lancaster happened to see that and he was taken with my performance. And at this point in time I was doing a nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy. We were touring, we were at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and I get this phone call and this man says, ‘Miss Jones, this is Burt lLncaster,’ and I said, ‘Sure it is,’ and I hung up. Fortunately he called back. Anyway, he told me about Elmer Gantry and he said, ‘Get the book, read the book, and I want you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard rooks and read for the role of Lulu Baines.’
“I did that and I was amazed he was thinking of me for this role, which was just incredible. I met with Brooks. Brooks didn’t want me. He wanted Piper Laurie. He didn’t want me at all but Burt fought fought for me and that’s how I got the part (that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). But my point is had that not happened my career would have been over because I wasn’t an actress to Hollywood then. After Gantry then I went on to do 30 films.”
LAB: You went on to work with Brooks again.
SJ: “Yes, yes on The Happy Ending.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: How did R & H feel about the film adaptation of Carousel – were they pleased?
SJ: “No, not completely, they weren’t. You know, Frank Sinatra was signed to do it. I did all the prerecordings, all the rehearsals, all the costumes, everything with Frank. We were shooting in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. Frank was thrilled about playing the role, thrilled. He said it was the best male role ever written. We get up there and we were shooting with two separate cameras (for different wide screen processes), which everybody knew from the beginning. And Henry King was the director and Frank came onto the set for our first dramatic scene and he saw the cameras and said, ‘Why the two cameras?’ Henry said, ‘Well, you know, we may need to shoot a scene twice, we’re doing regular cinemascope and cinemascope 55,’ and Frank said, ‘I signed to do one movie, not two,’ and back in the car and back to the airport.”
LAB: So that’s true then that that’s the reason he walked off the picture?
SJ: “Well , that was not the reason I’ve come to know. I called Gordon (MacRae) in Lake Tahoe and told him, ‘You’ve got the part in Carousel,’ and he said, ‘Give me three days, I have to lose 10 pounds.’ In later years, every time I’d see Frank I’d say, ‘Frank, what happened?’ ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Shirley.’And just about three or four years ago or so I was in a big conference with the press and some of the old guys from way back were sitting in the back row and talking about everything and I brought this story up and one of these old guys spoke up and said, ‘Shirley, don’t you know why fFank left?’ I said, ‘No, do you?’ ‘Oh yeah, everybody knew.’I said, ‘What was it?’ H said, ‘Ava Gardner (Sinatra’s then-wife) was in africa doing Magambo with Clark Gable and she called him and said, Unless you get your fanny down here I’m having an affair with Gable.’ So that was it.”
LAB: Well, that does sound more likely.
SJ: “Doesn’t that sound more likely?”
LAB: You were reteamed with Gordon MacRae – what was your working relationship like with him?
SJ: “Oh, it was wonderful, I adored Gordon. He and Sheila were the godparents of my first born son (Sean). We stayed close close friends. He was my favorite male singer of all time. When I was 16 he had a radio show called ‘The Teen Timers Club’ and every Saturday morning I would turn it on and hear his voice, so at 16 I fell in love with that voice.”
LAB: You know the last several years of his life he lived in Lincoln, Neb.?
SJ: “I know, I know.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: What kind of an experience was the Carousel shoot?
SJ: “Well, it was beautiful. We, we were in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine,. It was gorgeous. Ihad a little house overlooking the water. We were shooting on the dock. And Barbara Uric became my very, very best friend. I adored Barbara, We roomed together in New York and we had a place together here. It was great, I loved eryv body in the film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful film but its very melancholy.
SJ: “Oh my goodness, yes.”
LAB: It touches on things most musicals don’t get to.
SJ: “Well, yeah, it’s a dark story. I mean, that’s the point. Billy Bigelow’s a bad guy and that’s why a lot of people said Sinatra’s personality would have been better for the role than Gordon’s. But for me ne never could have sung it like Gordon. Gordon’s soliloquy was just to die over.”
LAB: Do you feel the film has been somewhat overlooked or underappreciated?
SJ: “Yeah I do, I don’t know why exactly but I do. You know they did a revival of it in New York at Lincoln Center and I was sitting at the matinee and there were a lot of women sitting in the audience and you know it’s about wife abuse basically and it was really interesting right during the show all these ladies got up and screamed, ’Everybody leave, this is wrong,’ and they left the theater. Isn’t that something?”
LAB: How about the director of that film, Henry King?
SJ: “He was just an old-time director. That may have been the other reason why I feel the film wasn’t as good as maybe it could have been in many ways. He was very aging then and everything was just just what it should be, he didn’t go further than that. you know what I’m saying?.”
LAB: Even though movie musicals were already dying out by the time Carousel was released you still made two fine musicals after it, one of them, The Music Man, being another classic.
SJ: “Oh yeah, big time still. As a matter of fact my son (Patrick) and I have been doing it several places. I’m playing Mrs. Peru now on the stage. In 2014 they’re scheduling a four month tour of Patrick and myself, showing film clips and me talking about The Music Man.”
LAB: And let’s not forget April Love.
SJ: “Yes, Pat Boone, uh huh.”
LAB: I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple years ago when he was the guest star for Bruce Crawford’s screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and he spoke very fondly of working with you.
SJ: “Oh, we had a wonderful time, really. Kentucky was great. We went to the Kentucky Derby. We’re still close friends.”
LAB: Didn’t you end up playing the role of Nettle?
SJ: “Mmm hmm, on the stage, I did it up in Connecticut. I’m graduating to the old lady roles now, I know.”
LAB: Do you enjoy coming to places like Omaha to share your passion for the films you made?
SJ: “Oh, sure, absolutely, of course I do. That’s been my career really. Winning the Academy Award. I’m still working up a storm all over the place. I just did a movie, this is hysterical – I play a zombie. They’re big now. Isn’t that funny? I’ve really come a long way, the Academy Award to a zombie.”
LAB: That proves you’re right on the cutting edge of things right now.
SJ: “That’s right, exactly.”
LAB: I have to ask you something about the Partridge Family because it was a pop culture phenomenon.
SJ: “Yes it was.”
LAB: Are you glad in the final analysis you did that?
SJ: “Oh, yes, I’m glad for personal reasons more than anything else and the fact it was a big hit. But you know at that time the agents and managers said, ‘Shirley, don’t do a television series,’ because I was a movie star. They said if it is successful you’ll be that character for the rest of your life and your movie career will be in the toilet. Well, they were right. But what I wanted was to stay home and raise my kids and that gave me that opportunity. I had three sons and they were all over Europe, on the road with me on movies everywhere and they were school-age and I said if this is successful it’s the perfect time for me to do this and it was. And it was great for me that way and it didn’t ruin my career but they felt at that time television was a step down.”
LAB: There are a few more of your movie experiences I want to ask you about. So what was it like working with Marlon Brando on Bedtime Story?
SJ: “Let me say that I think I got Brando at a very good time in his life because he wanted to play comedy and nobody would give him the opportunity. He’d just come from Mutiny on the Bounty in which he was hated. He was a brilliant actor but he wanted to expand. He adored David Niven. The only problem I saw at this time in his life is that it was nothing for him to do 40-50 takes on one scene.”
LAB: And you got the chance to work with the great John Ford in Two Rode Together, in which you co-starred with James Stewart and Richard Widmark.
SJ: “Couldn’t stand him. He was not good with women. He was a man’s man and he looked down on women. It was like, Who cares? I never got one direction from him, nothing. And he had a handkerchief hanging out of his mouth all the time. I said to Richard (Widmark), ‘What is that handkerchief?’ He said, ‘Shirley. don’t say anything about it, don’t ask him.’ But it was hysterical. He’d take it out and say, ‘Let’s get ready to shoot,’ and put it back in. And the script – there’d be a rewrite every single morning. So it was not an easy movie for me. Thank God I was working with people like Widmark and (Jimmy) Stewart because they were sensational and very helpful to me.”
LAB: They were protective of you?
SJ: “Oh, very much so, yes. So that helped a lot. I was offered another movie with him (Ford) after that and I said no.”
LAB: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
SJ: “Yes, that was it.”
LAB: You had the misfortune of catching Ford near the end of his career when he was even more cantankerous than before.
SJ: “I think early on he wasn’t quite like that but it was terrible then.”
LAB: You’re in one of my favorite movies – The Cheyenne Social Club.
SJ: “Ah, I love that movie.”
LAB: I think it’s underappreciated.
SJ: “So do I. It’s a great movie. it was a great movie to do. Gene Kelly directed it. I had a wonderful relationship with him, and I adored Jimmy. Jimmy lived down the street from me. I loved the story. And I think it’s the funniest thing Henry Fonda ever did.”
LAB: Fonda and Stewart are so masterful together in their simplicity and naturalness.
SJ: “Well, they were college roommates (roommates back East and in Hollywood), and I’ve often said watching them work was truly an acting lesson. They would ad lib, they knew each other so well, they knew each other’s timing. It was incredible.”
LAB: And this next one is not a great movie but you costarred in it with one of my favorite actors, James Garner…
SJ: “Tank. Oh, yes, I loved Jimmy, we had a good time.”
LAB: You’ve worked with a lot of legends…
SJ: “Oh, very much. I have a book coming out by the way – in June. It’s Shirley Jones, A Memoir. Yeah, it’s the story of my life.”
LAB: Is that something publishers have been trying to get you to do for some time?
SJ: “Yes, they have, and Simon and Schuster bought this so I’ll be on the road doing a lot of talking.”
LAB: So will we see different shades of Shirley Jones?
SJ: “Different shades absolutely. I’m not saying I slept with every male star that I worked with but I have a lot to say about everybody I worked with and two crazy husbands and 12 grandchildren, so my life has been rather extraordinary from the beginning.”
LAB: As you may have heard, Bruce Crawford really puts on the dog for his events. They’re like Hollywood premieres, only Omaha style.
SJ: “Yes, that’s what I hear. That’s great, I think that’s wonderful, it gives them an opportunity to view this film.”
- You’ll never walk alone- (lesplaisirssimplesdelavie.wordpress.com)
- Carousel (bettysbrownies.wordpress.com)
- Live From Lincoln Center: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Carousel (alaskapublic.org)
- Carousel (3159shroyer.wordpress.com)
Omaha Film Festival Features Strong Lineup of Offering, including ‘The Sapphires’ and ‘Breaking Night’
Omaha Film Festival Features Strong Lineup of Offering, including ‘The Sapphires’ and ‘Breaking Night’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Caught the Omaha Film Festival’s opening night screening of The Sapphires on Wednesday and was completely taken with it. It’s a feel-good movie with some real soul and depth and bite to it. It’s certainly not a great film from an aesthetic point of view, although it has high production values and a very good cast, but it tells a familiar Dreamgirls-like story in an entirely new context. The movie’s based on the true story of an Aboriginal girl singing group being discovered and groomed in the late ’60s for a wild adventure performing for U.S. troops in Vietnam. Sure, some predictable stuff happens, but the movie makes it seem fresh and it keeps you captivated throughout.
As good as the actresses are that portray the girl singers, the real star of the show is Shari Sebbens as their manager, Dave,
If this flick comes back for a regular theatrical run then make sure you catch it.
The Sapphires is one of many dozen curated new films, including narrative and documentary features and shorts, playing at the Festival.
I meant to see on the big screen the writing-directing debut work of my friend and fellow Omaha native Yolonda Ross, whose dramatic short Breaking Night was an official selection at the fest. She also stars in it. Fortunately I did see it on my computer thanks to a link she shared with me and after several viewings I must say it’s an impressive achievement that shows much promise for her as a feature writer-director, which is her ultimate aim. In the current issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) I profile Yolonda and her recent work, which in addition to Breaking Night includes parts in new films by David Mamet and John Sayles. You can find my new Ross piece, along with previous profiles I did about her, on this blog. If you love film, then take some time out to peruse and read my many other film stories on the blog.
Ross is among several film artists participating in panels and workshops at the Festival, which has a solid history of bringing in top professionals from across the film arts landscape to discuss their work and craft.
The Festival continues through Sunday. Check out its impressive offerings at http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.
Omaha Film Festival Highlight: Yolonda Ross Adds Writer-Director to Actress Credits; In New Movies by Mamet and Sayles as her Own ‘Breaking Night’ Makes the Festival Circuit
If you appreciate really good acting then a name you should know is Yolonda Ross. Her face may be familiar but her name likely isn’t. She doesn’t get the high visibility film and television parts that another Omaha native actress of color , Gabrielle Union, gets but it’s not for lack of talent. It certainly isn’t for a lack of looks either. No, it’s hard to say why she hasn’t had the major breakthrough that other actresses have but it’s not as though her career is wanting either. She’s done lots of good work on the big and and small screens and three new movie projects are sure to bring her more attention than she usually gets. She appears in new movies by noted filmmakers David Mamet and John Sayles and her own writing-directing debut, the short Breaking Night, which she also stars in is making the festival rounds. Indeed, her dramtatic narrative short is screening at the Omaha Film Festival on March 8. She’ll be there for that screening and she’ll also participate in an acting panel on March 9. I’ve been following her career for several years now and you’ll find my earlier stories about her and her work on this blog. I’m hoping she finally gets the due she deserves.
Omaha Film Festival Highlight: Yolonda Ross Adds Writer-Director to Actress Credits; In New Movies by Mamet and Sayles as her Own ‘Breaking Night’ Makes the Festival Circuit
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
You may not know the name but for more than a decade now Omaha native Yolonda Ross has been a stalwart actress in American independent cinema and quality television movies and episodic dramas.
Before recently working with a pair of star indie writer-directors – David Mamet, on the new HBO movie Phil Spector, and John Sayles on the coming feature Go for Sisters – she’d previously been directed by Woody Allen (Celebrity), Cheryl Dunye (Stranger Inside), John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus) and Todd Haynes (I’m Not There).
Ross played the recurring role of documentary filmmaker Dana Lyndsey in season two of the acclaimed HBO series Treme. She’s guested on such prestigious network shows as Third Watch, 24, Law & Order and New York Undercover.
Spector and Sisters come on the heels of her turn as a mother and wife in the well-received 2012 indie feature, Yelling to the Sky, that deals with issues of race, violence, bullying and relationships. It was shot in Queens, NY.
A measure of the esteem Ross enjoys is that both Mamet and Sayles wrote parts for her in their new films. Though she’s only in one scene in the Spector biopic, which premieres Mar. 24, it’s with the great Helen Mirren. Her co-lead role, opposite LisaGay Hamilton, in the Sayles cross-cultural suspenser Sisters marks her first lead in a prestige feature.
2013 also marks Yolonda’s writing-directing debut with the short drama Breaking Night, an official selection of the Mar. 6-10 Omaha Film Festival unreeling at the Regal Stadium 16, 7440 Crown Point Avenue. Her dramatic narrative short screens Friday at 5:30 p.m. The coming-of-age story stars Ross as a young woman riding the throes of first love to escape a harsh home life. The film was selected for the New Voices in Black Cinema series in Brooklyn, NY.
Ross is a veteran of workshops at the Sundance Institute‘s screenwriters and directors labs, where she’s worked with her “dear friend” screenwriter-director Joan Tewksberry (who scripted Nashville). The actress filmed her short last summer in St. Charles Parish, New Orleans and in Baton Rouge, whose spell she’d already fallen under from her work on Treme, the post-Katrina Big Easy-set drama. She recruited some of her crew from the show.
Fellow Omaha native Alexander Payne served as a Breaking Night producer.
A longtime New York City resident, Ross will be at the OFF screening, where Omaha friends and family will lend support.
Though she hopes Sisters leads to acting offers and Breaking Night establishes her directing cred, she’s taking matters in her own hands by writing new scripts for her to direct and/or star in. She’s currently penning a feature family drama she plans to direct in Houston, Texas next year. She’s also writing a spec pilot. She has more short scripts she’d like to develop.
She clearly views Breaking Night as the start of her career as filmmaker.
“It’s like one down and many to go. Once I got it finished it was just onto the next one. It doesn’t stop at one,” she says.
The many faces of Yolonda Ross:
Ross, a Burke High graduate who left Omaha in the mid-1990s to work in fashion, also sings (jazz, R&B) and paints (acrylic abstracts) and thus she views writing-directing as simply two more expressions of her creativity.
“I can do a lot of things. I happen to be one of those people that’s gifted in a lot of ways creatively. I mean, that’s just how I function. To not be utilizing all the parts of yourself sort of feels like you’re wasting yourself .”
Her writing’s evolved to where she’s confident she can craft her own vehicles.
“I feel as time has gone on my writing has gotten more defined. I know what my voice is, I know I have a unique point of view, I know I see things in a way that I feel are not being seen. Also, so many things are from a male point of view. I find it refreshing to see somebody else’s point of view, and you know I’m a black woman and one that I don’t feel is stereotypical,” says Ross, who’s worked with several women directors.
“I can tell a story and my writing has been really going places.
Breaking Night realizes a long-held goal to put her ideas on screen.
“I wanted to get the visions out of my head and see if I can do it, see what I can make, see what comes out of me. I actually had something else written but I didn’t feel like doing that so the story of Breaking Night just kind of came about. I had just been up at the Sundance film labs the summer before working on a project and it just made me want to have my own project to work on and to see what came of it with a collective group of people.”
Helming her own film proved to be everything she thought it would be.
“It was like an amazing, magical event. Little by little it all came together. It was a four-day shoot. Our last day of shooting was a night shoot that went into morning and the sun came up and we watched the sun rising. We all broke night together and nobody wrecked anybody’s nerves. We all worked together, there were no like attitudes, it was just beautiful.”
She says the film’s story is “a universal one with a different face on it.” Her inspiration was the classic ’70s rock song “Blinded by the Light,” a personal favorite that always conjured romantic and rebellious images for her. She set the story, which all takes place in the space of 24 hours, in the same decade to stay true to the song’s roots.
“I tell a universal story of a young person going through problems at home who doesn’t have support and leaves home. That’s every race, every generation.”
In her script the song becomes an anthem for breaking free of shackles that define or limit us. Her choice to infuse an interracial love relationship into the mix was about overturning stereotypes but in the end her film’s less about that than it is about finding one’s identity and following one’s destiny.
“There are definitely images that would always come to mind when I would listen to the song, knowing the time period it comes from, knowing which stations it would be played on and who the audiences would be for it. But in my thoughts it’s universal because everybody I know loves that song and rocks that song and I wanted to put a different face on who the characters were in it.
“If a film from the song was made in the ’70s when it came out I’m sure those characters would all be white. In TV and film then most times you would see black people either in the city on drugs or selling drugs or trying to get out of the ghetto or in the South trying to flee the South. In this case I wanted to put certain constraints on myself to fit the story and these elements into this seven minute song and tell this story.”
She’s satisfied she delivered a tale of youthful angst and longing that transcends cultures.
“I feel I’ve succeeded because race is not the issue at all in it. The story happens to have a black family. What I used as reference were movies like Silkwood and Norma Rae. It’s a rural home where the mom, even though it’s not said, has like a factory job and she’s got a dude she shouldn’t be with. He’s not a dad, he’s kind of living off them and taking advantage.
“The boy the girl is in love with is her escape. He’s the only one that understands her. At that age you have that person and he’s that person. They both run away. She’s got him as protection. That’s a young romance, so who knows what’s going to happen to it when she gets to wherever she’s going.”
Ross has the girl she plays cross paths with a posh black couple out on the town getting their disco down. The couple represent to the girl a sophistication and life far removed from her own.
“It’s like they symbolize to the girl that she can become that. So then she does take her life and her future into her hands and makes a decision. She’s not going to be a person who gets run over and taken advantage of, she’s not going to allow herself to be in the same kind of situation as her mom.”
An actress who never looks the same from part to part, Ross deftly plays both the ingenue and the ethereal disco mama.
Ross shot and edited the encounter to indicate the disco couple also see in the girl the possibility of something she’d never seen in herself. The girl becomes empowered by accepting a knowing look from the woman and a kiss and a business card from the man. All affirmation of her worth and emancipation – that her time has come, that her path will be different.
“It’s like, ‘This fabulous couple sees something in me? OK, I’m out of here.’ The kids don’t know where they’re going, they’re just running away, but now she’s going wherever the disco man’s card says he from. It’s that kind of feeling.”
Ross went after a late ’70s-early ’80s Pop style look for the film, which plays like a good music video. She doesn’t mind the music video comparison but is adamant the story stands on its own.
“It has the aspects of a music video to it but it really is a short film because without the music the story is still there. I would like people to understand that there’s a lot actually happening there. All those frames in it have meaning.”
The visual palette changes as the drama plays out.
“It’s got three parts to it. It starts off light and kind of generic but once you get into the home it gets dark, it gets more real because it’s a messed up situation that happens. Once she’s out of the home that night it goes through a kind of surreal take. It leaves you wondering did this really happen or did she dream it.”
In one shot the two young lovers have a kind of out-of-body experience while making out and to convey that feeling Ross wanted a visual effect she recalled seeing from that era. But she couldn’t find an example and she didn’t know what to call it.
“That was like the hardest thing,” she says. “In describing seeing that thing on TV or in videos in the early ’80s I could not find anybody who knew what that thing was. I finally found somebody to actually do it for me. It’s called a trail.”
The ending unfolds in an other-worldly rural idyll flush with Spanish Moss trees. There’s a sumptuous quality to the imagery throughout, even the gritty parts, that she credits her director of photography, Justin Zweifach, with.
“My DP was amazing. He literally came on a week before us shooting because my original DP dropped out and it was a blessing because he understood everything that was going on in my head. I made storyboards and there’s a full script but him asking me certain questions about the feel of things, the feel of characters, how I saw things, that was way more helpful in him capturing how it looks. It’s above and beyond what I expected. I mean, he shot it beautifully.”
She says crew embraced the project because with its minimal dialogue and luscious images their work can be readily seen on the screen.
Others who helped ease her through the first-time filmmaking process were executive producer Tim Mather and associate producer Sasha Solodukhina.
About Mather, she says, “When you’ve got somebody who’s got your back and understands the whole production part of it to guide you through it’s a lifesaver because there are so many little things. I come from acting, so I know about emotions, I know about all that kind of stuff. Before I did this i really didn’t even know the difference between a gaffer and a grip. I hate to say this but I didn’t know what the jobs were, but now I know. I know in front of, I know behind, I know these things now.
“And Tim is great dealing with people and places you need to have connections to to get better deals and to get things done.”
She says Solodukhina was “like wonder woman because she got me so many people. She knows everybody.”
As for having Payne’s imprimatur on the film, she notes, “What can you say? How can that hurt? I’m glad that our friendship made him come on and contribute. I still have to show him the film though.”
With the likes of Payne, Mamet and Sayles in her corner, she knows her work is getting noticed by the right people.
“It’s like how I feel most of my career has been, you just do your work and a lot of times you don’t feel anybody’s paying attention or whatever but then you get these offers from these great directors, so it’s amazing who watches and who does think of you.”
The offer from Sayles came while she location scouted for her short. She knew him from auditioning for his Honeydripper, losing a part in it to her Go for Sisters co-star, LisaGay Hamilton.
Sisters is the fictional story of childhood best friends whose different life paths have separated them for 20 years until events reunite them as adults. Ross is the newly released from prison Fontaine, who finds her old friend Bernice (Hamilton) assigned as her parole officer. The street wise ex-con becomes a lifeline when Bernice’s son is captured and held for ransom by drug dealers in Mexican border towns. Edward James Olmos becomes the third amigo in this search party that courts danger at every turn.
Edward James Olmos, LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross in Go for Sisters
Olmos, Hamlton, Ross in Go for Sisters
The low-budget, guerrilla-style shoot in Mexicali, Calixico and Tijuana required a huge number of locations in a short number of days, which kept cast and crew hopping.
“It was fun but just different logistically for me,” says Ross. “It was sort of like you wake up and you just go. You don’t even look around. You’re like, OK, who am I? What are we doing? It’s almost a road movie because we’re on the move so much. The story takes you on a nice trip. There’s lots of familiar faces in cameos and it’s fun to see who you come across next.”
About the enigmatic Sayles, she says, “Pretty much he gives you the blueprint and you do it. He has said, and now I see it, that his directing is choosing the right actors,. He lets us do our work.” By contrast, she says Mamet “is more verbal than John. I think he’s really funny, I really like him a lot. The one way they are alike is they both tell stories while working and they both have people around them they’ve worked with before, so there’s a level of comfort with the crew.”
She’s excited to see who next notices her work. though she says she’s been around long enough to know that some filmmakers “go after the same people or who they think are hot or whatever,” adding, “You can be talented all day but that has nothing to do with them hiring you.” She says if box office performance is the arbiter then she’ll always be at a disadvantage because the small indie work she does rarely makes much of a splash or a profit.
“It’s unfortunate. The rest is just all crazy business stuff, which makes no sense. That’s why I’m writing.”
Ross is also part of a March 9 panel, Actors on Acting, at 3:15 p.m.
The Omaha Film Festival is a curated assemblage of narrative feature films, documentaries, live action and animated shorts as well as workshops and panels. Now in its eighth year, the fest has a strong track record of bringing film artists with and without Nebraska ties to discuss their work.
For schedule and ticket details, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.
- John Sayles – An American Classic (mrmovietimes.com)
- Phil Spector Biopic Trailer Released By HBO (noise11.com)
- Interview with Victoria Mahoney on ‘Yelling to the Sky’ starring Zoe Kravitz, Gabourey Sidibe and Black Thought (ifelicious.com)
Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ a Blend of Old and New as He Brings Indiewood Back to the State and Reconnects with Tried and True Crew on His First Black and White Film
Alexander Payne is at it again. By that I mean he’s in progress on a new road picture, Nebraska, whose principal photography was accomplished October 15 through the end of November. The filmmaker will be editing the project through the spring. Here’s my second cover story about the project, this one based in part on a short visit I made to the set in November. The piece will be appearing soon in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it features material gleaned from interviews with Payne, screenwriter Robert Nelson, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and casting director John Jackson.
The writer-director is the subject of my new book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Alexander Payne‘s decision to make Nebraska in his home state brought into sharp relief some realities with large implications for his own work and prospects for more studio films getting made here.
The state’s favorite son had not shot a single frame here since About Schmidt in 2002. With Nebraska, whose principal photography went from October 15 through November, he continued a tradition of shooting here and surrounding himself with crew whom he has a long history. Some key locals are part of his creative team, too, including one metro resident he calls “my secret weapon.”
Aesthetically and technically speaking, Payne also stretched himself by lensing for the first time in black and white, wide screen and digital. He says abandoning celluloid marks a concession to the new digital norm and to the fact today’s black and white film stock options are limited.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael says digital “allows us to work more with natural light and not have to carry a larger equipment package. We did specific black and white tests to choose the texture and quality in terms of contrast and film grain level we want for the picture. So we went into it knowing exactly where we want to be at.”
Papamichael adds, “Digital means needing less light, so we can do tighter interiors, which is important on this show because we’re entirely a location picture. We don’t have anything built. A lot of these interior spaces are very small and whatever space we can save in terms of lighting and camera equipment is helpful. Rather than having traditional bigger car rigs and following cars with camera cars we’re able to just get in the car hand-held. Also, these newer cameras allow us to do good car work without lighting. It just helps the whole natural feel we’re going for.”
At the end of the day, says Payne, digital “doesn’t matter to me because my process stays exactly the same.” His process is all about arriving at the truth. Capturing the windswept plains and fall after-harvest season figured prominently in that this time. Papamichael and Payne sought ways to juxtapose characters with the prairie, the open road and small town life milieu. In a story of taciturn people rooted to the land and whose conversations consist of terse exchanges, context and subtext are everything. Therefore, the filmmakers extracted all the metaphor and atmosphere possible from actual locations, geography and weather.
Payne doesn’t belabor the point but he received pressure from various quarters to shoot the picture elsewhere. The suits pressed going to states with serious film tax credits. Many locales could approximate Nebraska while saving producers money.
He finds himself in the awkward position of having lobbied long and hard to try and convince the governor and state legislators to support film incentives only to see his entreaties largely ignored. As much as he and his projects are embraced, his moviemaking forays in the state seem taken for granted. But the fact is he only ended up shooting here because he had the motivation and clout to do so.
If not for Nebraska there would have been no feature film activity of any significance here during 2012. Minus his Citizen Ruth, Election and Schmidt, the state has precious little feature film activity of any size to show for it. Refusing to cheat the script’s Nebraska settings, Payne brought Indiewood feature filmmaking of scale back home for the first time in a decade. Basing his production in Norfolk provided a boost to the northeast part of the state.
Norfolk director of economic development Courtney Klein-Faust says the total impact the project had on the local economy has yet to be tabulated but that just in lodging alone the production spent more than a half-million dollars accommodating its 100 cast and crew members. She says the film bought local goods and services whenever possible. She feels the experience will serve as “a case study” for elected officials to assess the trickle down effect of mid-major features and will be used by supporters of tax credits to push for more film industry friendly measures.
Like many filmmakers who develop a track record of success Payne’s cultivated around him a stock company of crew he works with from project to project. During a mid-November visit to the Nebraska set it was evident he enjoys the same easy rapport with and loyalty to crew he had before his two Oscar wins. The only time this visitor saw Payne betray even mild upset came after a principal actor was not in place when ready to roll and the filmmaker emphatically tapped his watch as if to say, “Time is money.” He expressed mild frustration when cows drifted out of frame and it took awhile for production assistants to wrangle them back in position.
Payne and some assembled crew, ©Sam Herron
On Nebraska he collaborated for the third consecutive time with Papamichael, the director of photography for The Descendants and Sideways. Their relationship entered a new dimension as they devised a black and white and widescreen visual palette to accentuate Nebraska’s stark characters and settings. That meant fixing on the right tools to capture that look.
“We did a bunch of testing and dialed in a look we’d like for our black and white because there are many different ways to go about black and white,” says Papamichael. Some of the expressive light and shadow images extracted by Papamichael and Payne recall memorable black and white treatments from cinema past, including Shadow of a Doubt, Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil and It’s a Wonderful Life.
“It’s not really a film noir look, it’s definitely a high con(trast) with natural lighting” Papamichael says. “We were very diligent in selecting our lens package, which is Panavision C Series anamorphic. That’s from the ’70s, so it has a little bit of a less defined, less sharp quality and that helps the look. We’re adding quite a bit of actual film grain to it which will feel like you’re watching a film projection. We’re even talking about possibly adding some projector flicker imposed. So we’re really going for a film look.
“And through a series of tests we’ve been able to achieve that.”
A week into filming, Papamichael was pleased by what he and Payne cultivated.
“There’s an overall excitement the whole crew has. Everybody feels we’re doing something very special and unique and the black and white has a lot to do with it. After you work with it for awhile it becomes the way you see things. In a way we’re learning the power of black and white as we go. We’re really coming to appreciate and love the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes and, of course, the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story – just scaling the human drama and comedy.
“The black and white is becoming a very powerful character in this film just in terms of setting the mood for this.”
Grizzled Bruce Dern as the gone-to-seed protagonist Woody is a walking emblem of the forlorn but enduring fields and played out towns that form the story’s backdrop. His tangle of white hair resembles shocks of frosted wheat. His drab working man clothes hang on him as if he’s a scarecrow. His gait is halting and he lists to one side. His Woody is as worn and weathered as the abandoned farmhouse of the character’s youth. But just like the artifacts of Woody’s past, this physical-emotional derelict holds on from sheer cussedness.
Papamichael says part of the fun became “discovering Bruce Dern’s great visual qualities – his face, the textures and everything that are emphasized through the black and white.”
The film’s full of Nebraskesque places and faces. There’s that farmhouse a few minutes outside Plainview. There’s the town of Plainview itself standing in for the fictional Hawthorne. There’s an American Legion hall, some bars, farm implement dealerships and mottled fields full of lowing cows. There are earnest farmers, shopkeeps, housewives and barmaids, plain as the day is long.
“Alexander is very diligent about finding the exact right spot for everything,” says Papamichael.
The original screenplay is by Bob Nelson, whose parents grew up in the very northeast environs of the state the film’s set in. He’s also impressed by how rigorous Payne is in location scouting.
“I think he’s done a great job of finding a combination of things around Norfolk,” he says. “I’ve seen the location photos and it’s pretty stunning to see it in black and white. You know it has that The Last Picture Show quality to it. It is funny to see these things that were in your mind, like the abandoned farmhouse, come to life. I don’t know how they found it, it must have been a chore, but they came up with a good one. Almost everything I saw was spot-on perfect.”
The locations are pregnant with memories and incidents, thus Payne and Papamichael chose ones most reflecting the characters and situations and they cast actors and nonactors alike who most represent these places and lifestyles.
“For him it’s not all about trying to capture something truthful and comedically grim about the American landscape but also something archetypal,” says producer Albert Berger.
Whenever Payne works with Papamichael it means inheriting the camera and lighting crew the celebrated DP brings with him, including chief lighting technician Rafael Sanchez and key grip Ray Garcia. Boom operator Jonathan Fuh is a regular on Payne sets as well as costume designer Wendy Chuck.
Then there’s veteran Payne collaborator Jose Antonio Garcia, the sound mixer on the writer-director’s last three films. George Parra goes back as far as Election in capacities ranging from assistant director to co-producer to production manager. He executive produced Nebraska.
Production designer Jane Ann Stewart had been on every Payne show since Citizen Ruth but J. Dennis Washington took over that job on Nebraska. Interestingly, a Hollywood art director who lives in Nebraska, Sandy Veneziano, joined the crew to mark her first Payne production.
Omaha resident Jamie Vesay, a key assistant location manager, crewed along with other locals, including set medic Kevin O’Leary.
Screenwriter Nelson is a Nebraskan by proxy. His folks hailed from Hartington and growing up in the Pacific Northwest he visited relatives back here, several of whom were models for his characters. Woody is closely patterned after his father.
Payne conferred with Nelson as he tweaked the writer’s work.
“Yeah, every time I’d do a pass on the script I’d send it to him and see what he thought, and he seemed to like it,” Payne says. “Sometimes there were certain moments or a certain scene I’d want a little more information about. Like one scene I really like in the script is when the family visits the house where Woody grew up and it’s now an abandoned farmhouse. And there Woody delivers a speech about having found the hail adjuster’s knife in the field, and it’s really the only time Woody speaks in the film, and I just remember asking Bob where that came from.”
Nelson says that American Gothic scene when Woody tells his son David (WIll Forte) “a story about how the hail adjustor tried to screw them out of their insurance is actually a true story based on visiting an uncle near Wausa on his farm. That’s almost verbatim.”
Payne says Nelson also helped inform some creative decisions. “He sent me some old photographs of his actual family from Hartington to serve as something of a reference for casting and costuming.”
The colleague Payne refers to as “my secret weapon,” casting director John Jackson of Council Bluffs, is undoubtedly the most influential local in the filmmaker’s close circle of collaborators.
“We just have really similar tastes and in honing our working method since 1995 we just have developed a very similar aesthetic of what we want to see in a film, the type of reality we want,” Payne says of Jackson. “And also I think the two of us have developed a pretty good eye for spotting acting talent in nonactors – talent they may not even know they have – and by talent I just mean the ability to be in front of a camera playing some version of themselves and saying dialogue believably and without getting freaked out.”
“People can be cinematic just by being themselves and being appropriately placed where they need to be, people can be brilliant by just doing what they do, listening or talking or moving,” says Jackson, who along with Payne is excited about several of their nonactor discoveries on Nebraska.
“Glendora Stitt, the woman that plays Aunt Betty, what a find. Dennis McCoIg, who plays Uncle Cecil, is like Gary Cooper. Scott Goodman, the barista who served me at the Scooters drive-thru in Norfolk was hilarious without trying and I cast him in a tiny role. John “Jack” Reynolds, who plays Bernie Bowen, an old friend of Woody’s, is right out of a Preston Sturges and Frank Capra movie. He’s the face of the rolling plains and hilariously funny.”
Jackson says he thinks of filling out the people who inhabit any movie, such as Woody’s clan,”in terms of I’ve got to build the family, and then, ‘Who are the next door neighbors? who are his friends? what do they do for a living?’ I always have a back story for them. It’s not like I sit down and make it up, the script tells me what it is by the things they say.”
“Obviously it’s worked well,” says Payne. “Together we cast Chris Klein, Nick D’Agosto going as far back as Election. In the traditional American filmmaking model for casting you have one casting director, typically out of New York or L.A. or Chicago with whom you cast the lead parts, maybe the top five or 10 or 15 speaking parts. And then if you’re shooting on location you have a second casting person, a local casting person. That’s what John Jackson was for me on the first three films. And then you have a third person who’s in charge of extras. And I somehow thought that one person should be in charge of all of the flesh.
There should be one vision guiding all of it. You can’t get anyone in L.A. or New York to do that, so the person I want to do that is John Jackson.”
Jackson says his guide in casting is looking at “what does the script say,” and then conferring with Payne. “We talk a lot about the characters in relationship to the text. I frequently find myself asking him questions like, ‘At this point in the movie what do you want the audience to feel? what do you want them to think? what do you want them to say as they walk out of the theater?’ One of the things I learned from him is to look at a moment in the story and to ask questions like, ‘Who’s funnier doing this? who’s more believable doing that? who breaks my heart more?’
“I remember when we were doing Schmidt and it was between this woman in New York, June Squibb, and a woman in L.A. the studio was pushing and I said to him, ‘Well, it has to be her,’ meaning June Squibb, and he said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because in that moment when she surprises him with the motor home and she’s seated at the table and says, Isn’t it going to be great? you know he’s hating every minute of it. Somebody needs to break my heart, and June Squibb breaks my heart. At that moment I feel for her. I feel pain for him, but I really feel for her, so when she dies I’m going to hurt, whereas this other woman I don’t feel anything.’”
Squibb plays Woody’s wife Kate in Nebraska.
“Those are the kinds of conversations we have,” Jackson says of he and Payne. “We never talk about, as other producers do, ‘Well, you know, this person’s presence in the film would be great because they’re so huge in terms of DVD sales.’ I never have those conversations with him. I’ve tried in the past and he’ll just look at me like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to know.’ So it’s cleansed me.”
Jackson says he’s learned not to try and anticipate what Payne wants. “He constantly surprises me, he constantly challenges me. I wouldn’t want it any other way. What he’s looking for, I don’t know, I don’t know that he even knows, but I know one thing – when it’s there he recognizes it. That’s alchemy.”
No two projects are alike, Jackson says. “Every single one of these films is a completely different organic living thing and the challenge is to honor that and to help that grow and evolve and become whatever it’s going to become and Alexander is the guide to all of that.”
Payne and longtime editor Kevin Tent will be cutting Nebraska through the spring and the film will likely start playing festivals in late summer-early fall in advance of a end of 2013 general release.
- Movie shoot boosts Billings’ economy, pride (missoulian.com)
- Rapid City site of Hollywood movie shoot (rapidcityjournal.com)
- ‘Nebraska’ filming attracts local actors, gawkers (missoulian.com)
- Upcoming Alexander Payne Book Events (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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Here’s the latest interview I did for my Film Connections story-event project. It’s with actress Shirley Knight. She starred in the 1969 Francis Ford Coppola film The Rain People. She plays a discontened, pregnant, suburban housewife back East who feels trapped and suddenly flees her life to take a road trip across the country. She meets a couple men along the way and after a series of experiences she returns home to resume her life. The film’s final few weeks of shooting in 1968 happened in and around Ogallala, Neb. In addition to writer-director Coppola and lead actress Knight the production brought to this dusty hamlet a young assistant and then-protege of Coppola’s by the name of George Lucas, who directed the documentary The Making of The Rain People, cinematographer Bill Butler, and co-stars James Caan and Robert Duvall. The experience of The Rain People forged some important relationships that led to many collaborations by these artists. Coppola and Lucas formed American Zoetrope studio, Lucas cast Duvall as the lead in his feature directorial debut, THX-1138, which Coppola produced along with American Graffiti and Coppola cast both Duvall and Caan in The Godfather and went onto work with the actors on later films as well. While making Rain People Caan and Duvall fell in with a ranch-rodeo family who became the subject of a documentary Duvall made about them, We’re Not the Jet Set. My project examines these and more connections. You can find on this blog my interviews with Duvall and Caan. Soon I will be posting interviews I did with Coppola and Butler. That just leaves Lucas for me to get to. If anyone can help with that, I’d appreciate it.
LAB: Francis Coppola told me that he met you at Cannes, where your starring vehicle Dutchman (1967) was playing, which he greatly admired, and he came upon one one day to find you crying, after a confrontation with a journalist, and he consoled you with, “Don’t cry, I’m going to write a film for you.” And that film of course became The Rain People and the protagonist Natalie Ravenna was written for you.
SK: “Well, crying…I remember meeting him and talking with him. I don’t remember…I mean, it could be I had some sort of altercation with a journalist but I don’t remember. It’s so funny because a magazine told that story and the way they told it made it seem as if he was writing a film for me because I cried and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a very strange thing to say because I don’t think a Francis Ford Coppola would write a film for someone because they cried. I think they’d write a film for someone because they admired their work.
“I of course was very proud of Dutchman because it’s a film I also produced and we won the Critics Prize at Cannes for this little, bitty film which has become kind of iconic. I was very, very proud of my work in that film and also just the fact that I managed to get an independent film made.”
LAB: As you know better than me, a woman producing a feature then was a rarity. That was quite an accomplishment.
SK: “People always say, ‘Why isn’t your name on Dutchman?’ I just had the producing credit at the end, calling it Kaitlin Productions, which was me. Later on I regretted not taking my full credit. I allowed my husband at the time (to take credit). I guess I felt, ‘Well, I’m starring in the film..’ But honestly I think I should have been more true to myself and not given that up and of course it was my idea to make the film.
“I had done the play and I said, ‘I’m going to make a film of this,’ and he (her then husband) thought I was insane, as did everyone. They said it’s too short, it’s too political, it’s too this, it’s too that, and I said. ‘I don’t care, I’m going to make this film.’ And then I got him on board and he really helped. He had produced the production of the play.”
LAB: You’re justifiably proud of that project.
SK: “Yes, well, it’s become a film that’s taught in all black studies courses across the country. In 2000 the film was recognized as the most important about civil rights by a museum in New York. I tell my students that I think it’s so important that if there’s something you have to do because it’s close to your heart and you want to see it through to do it.”
LAB: You could count the number of women producers and directors then on one hand.
SK: “I remember years ago I did a television show that Ida Lupino directed and she was so cross with the editors that they wouldn’t edit the film exactly the way she wanted it. And what she would do is if she set up a close up that she knew she was not going to use in the editing room she would put her hand in front of my face, so that they had to cut to the other person. I was fascinated by her and her courage that she was going to have her film the way she wanted her film.
“Geraldine Fitzgerald played my mom in it and it was about Aimee Semple McPherson. It probably does not exist. It was like a two hour television film. She’s the only woman director I worked with. I’ll never forget her courage and how admirable I thought that was.”
LAB: Dutchman was a controversial film in its time for its racial content.
SK: “We did it on the fly, shot it in one week. We stole shots in the subway with an Arriflex and a paper bag. At the time nobody, apart from Europe, was going to recognize independent film (the film was completely ignored by the Academy Awards). We were recognized at Cannes and also I won the Best Actress at Venice for Dutchman. We tried to promote it in the United States. I showed it to my agents at William Morris and some of them even walked out if you can imagine. I was disappointed that I wasn’t recognized for my work in Dutchman in the United States but we were very backward at that point in terms of independent films.
“I think that atmosphere kind of affected The Rain People as well.”
LAB: Let’s talk about your working on The Rain People.
SK: “We of course did a lot of work improvising and all of that when we were working on the film. We were trying to write about a woman being an independent creature and trying to find herself.
“Did Francis tell you we made it under one regime at Warners and then it was released by the next regime?”
LAB: No, this is the first I’ve heard of it, though it’s not hard to believe and a lot of films have been the victim of similar regime changes and going from favored project with the former regime to out of favor with the succeeding one.
SK: “Well, I believe that’s what happened, I don’t know exactly. I think what happened was they didn’t care, you know they didn’t make the film, so they didn’t do a very good release, which was strange. But at any rate, to start at the beginning…we did meet at Cannes and he had You’re a Big Boy Now there.”
LAB: Were you impressed by it?
SK: “Yes, I thought it was a very sweet film”
LAB: Did you have any trepidations about working with someone as young as Coppola or was the chance to work with someone with a new voice and a new set of eyes actually appealing?
SK: “Absolutely. I’ve always been a person who’s sort of went against the flow. I’ve done that a lot, particularly in the theater, causing riots with plays I did like Dutchman and Losing Time, where we literally almost were run out of town. I like cutting edge. In my opinion art is about…we only have two things in life that help us to become better people and help us understand the world, and that’s art and philosophy, and so I think as artists we need to be responsible in terms of the work we do. That’s why I’m terrified by all the degradation of society by the reality television shows. I find it very frightening in terms of whats happening to the world.”
LAB: So Coppola told you he’d write you a film and he did
SK: “And then I think it was a few months later – I was in London working and Francis phoned and came with the script. I was staying at a little cottage in Hampstead, north of London. It was so sweet because he asked me would I mind reading the script right then. I said, ‘No, that’s fine.’ I remember I fixed him something to eat and then I went in the other room and he played with my daughter Kaitlin, who was around 5 years old. I read it and came back out and said, ‘Yes, I’d love to do it.”
LAB: What did you respond to most strongly in the script?
SK: “I responded to the character and also to the idea that we were going to make a film where we weren’t restricted. I was under contract to Warners and I had done a lot of films that were basically either on the Warner Bros. ranch or backlot or lot, so I loved the idea we were going to make a film where we were at liberty to do what we wanted, that we were going to drive here and drive there. I loved that aspect of his creativity.
“We had a few indoor sets (but otherwise the film was all actual locations).
NOTE: She said other than Dutchman and The Rain People very few of the films she made early in her career utilized actual locations. Another exception was Sidney Lumet’s The Group.
SK: “Sidney Lumet was very good at using locations. When we made the film The Group we shot that in New York on location, in the streets and on the subway and in churches and so an and so forth. In the films Sidney did with Al Pacino he shot outside a lot.”
LAB: Let’s get back to the story of your accepting the part of Natalie in The Rain People and working with Coppola.
SK: “I was excited about that and about this new young filmmaker and we sat down and talked about who he wanted to put in the film with me. He mentioned Rip Torn whom he had worked with in You’re a Big Boy Now, and he wanted him to play the motorcycle policeman and I said, ‘Great,’ because I knew Rip – we did Sweet Bird of Youth and I was very close friends with his wife (Geraldine Page). And Francis mentioned James Caan (as Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon), and I thought that was a very interesting choice for that role.”
LAB: Torn ended up being replaced by Robert Duvall.
SK: “What happened was, we were in New York and we did a lot of rehearsing with Rip and we added a bunch of improvs that Rip and I came up with and then we started making the film. That character (the cop) doesn’t come in until about half way into the film. We were out in Ogallala, Neb, and I don’t know the exact thing that happened, all I know is Francis came to me and said there was a difficulty with Rip, that we’ve lost Rip. The bought a motorcycle and it wasn’t a large budget and Rip lost it or he left it outside and somebody stole it.”
LAB: Yes, it was stolen, Coppola told me the whole story.
SK: “Knowing Rip, I wasn’t surprised. He had lost the role he was going to do in Easy Rider. He was supposed to play the role Jack (Nicholson) eventually played and it made Jack’s career. Well, he quarreled with Peter (Fonda) and Dennis (Hopper) and lost that and so I was upset for him that he was yet again spoiling a chance. If one thinks about what happened after it’s really sad because he might have been the person who did The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now.
“So we then had Robert Duvall play that role and that changed a lot of film history actually if you think about it because he started doing all that work (with Coppola). I remember mentioning to Francis Bobby Duvall. I had done a television show with him where we played husband and wife and I liked him, and he was thrown in the mix and eventually did the role, which was nice. He was lovely and that all worked out fine.”
LAB:: How did that small intimate ensemble of you, Duvall and Caan work out?
SK: “I think it was very good. I mean, you know, we had our ups and downs as one always does, especially in a long shoot, and there were times when we didn’t always agree, and that always happens. But the whole experience and the film that resulted from it was I thought very positive. And the only disappointment was it didn’t get the recognition and accolades I feel it should have.”
LAB: “What did you most identify with in the character of Natalie?
SK: “At the time I was leaving my first husband and I had met and was going to marry John Hopkins and I was actually pregnant with my daughter Sophie, so I was in an awkward point in my life because I was changing a lot of things. I was going to be moving to England, I was marrying an Englishman, and was about to have a child and we were doing this film about a woman who was in flux. Now when I first read the film that wasn’t the case but when I was doing the film it sort of was, not that I was her. I just think that sometimes life aligns with roles you play.”
LAB: What’s your take on why Natalie goes off on this adventure, having this series of experiences on the road with men, and then returns home to resume her life as a housewife and expectant mother?
SK: “It’s a road to discovery. I think what was happening with women at that time was that they were coming out of the ’50s as lovely housewives in their aprons into an era when women were becoming doctors and lawyers and entering politics and becoming independent. Natalie was caught up in that, she had married young and suddenly was feeling like she didn’t have control over her life and here she was pregnant and the responsibility of that and how that affected what her life was going to be.
“And I think the trip, the discovery for her was that in the course of the drive and meeting the two men she was able to determine that the life that she has was a good life. What she learned was that she could be her own person with another person. It didn’t require to reject this lovely man she loved in order for her to become independent.”
LAB: What was your experience in Ogallala like?
SN: “Well, it was kind of a relief to be in one place because wed’ been driving so much so that when we finally got to Ogallala it was rather nice. My daughter came out and played with Francis’ boys. One anecdote thats’ amusing, at the time it wasn’t amusing – his oldest boy and Kaitlin were playing and they thought it would be a good idea to strike some matches in one of the rooms at the motel and they started a little fire, as children will, but fortunately I had a nanny with my daughter and she saved the day.”
LAB: Having grown up in Kansas as you did being in the middle of Nebraska was not too unfamiliar to you then.
SK: “Not at all, the Midwest, and I always say Midwesterners make the best people. You know, Midwesterners are very open and nice. I’m still very close friends with my classmates from high school. I go to Kansas quite frequently because I started the William Inge Festival in Independence years ago.
“And I must tell you I made a horrible mistake when I was in Ogallala, Neb. I was offered the lead in a film called They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and I was so tired and pregnant and i said no to that amazing role, so I made a dreadful mistake, but one does that, so that happens.”
LAB: By the way, what did you make of the young George Lucas, who was an assistant on the project and also directed The Making of the Rain People?
SK: “I thought he was adorable. Francis said to me, ‘Do you mind if this kid comes along? I saw his student film and he wants to come along with us.’ And I said of course not, the more the merrier. And I tell that story when I teach because I could have been Miss Grand Dame and said, No, no. I always say to all my students, ‘Be nice to everybody. You don’t know, because that assistant could turn out to be George Lucas.’”
LAB: When The Rain People was made you were by far the biggest name among the films’ principal talents.
SK: “Well, I have a whole theory about fame. I always say, ‘It isn’t really something to aspire to in the sense that many many people who are very famous are ridiculous. I mean, look at the Kardashians. There are people walking around who don’t know who The Beatles were. So again something I tell my students, ‘If you think your food is you want to be famous you’re going to starve to death. Your food has to be you want to do good work and you want to become better at what you do. I quit movies and went to New York so I could become the best I could at my craft.
“The fame thing is absurd…ridiculous. It has nothing to do with what an artist does. And there’s a lot of young people now who don’t know who Francis is. They haven’t seen The Godfather. They know who Christopher Nolan is. So it’s all fleeting that whole thing. The people who really know who I am are people who are my age because they’ve grown up with me or they’re people who see me in those silly Adam Sandler films I do. I have a whole flock of young boys who stop me on the street and show me on their machines, which makes me laugh a lot.”
LAB: How do you regard The Rain People today
SK: “When people ask me my favorite films I always say Dutchman obviously because I think that’s my finest performance and a lot of that has to do with the fact that I did it in the theater. You don’t get better if all you do is film, you sort of stay the same. I think Rain People is certainly up there and then the other film I think is remarkable and I don’t have the lead in is Petulia. I think Richard Lester was one of the genius directors and I got to work with him twice and I think Petulia is an amazing film. If you said this is a film about the ’60s that would be the film because it is so much the ’60s. And I think As Good as it Gets is a wonderful film as well. Sweet Bird of Youth is a wonderful film. But I would say my top two would be Rain People and Dutchman.
“When they honored Jane Fonda and I at the Rome Film Festival they showed three of her films and three of mine, and the three of mine were Dutchman, The Rain People and Sweet Bird of Youth. It was very nice.”
LAB: Have you remained close to anyone from The Rain People over the years?
SK: “You know, not really. I’ve of course spoken to Francis and when he was honored at Lincoln Center I was one of the people who spoke. I’d love to work with him again. Francis and I were both at the Rome Film Festival when they honored Jane Fonda and I.
“But you know what it’s like, you just keep going on, its’ endless. I just finished an independent film in Oregon that I have great hopes for. It’s lovely. And I’m just about to start a Stephen King film, something I’ve never done, so that’ll be interesting. Anyway. I keep going. I’m one of the few actors evidently that has never been out of work, so I’m quite fortunate.”
LAB: Coppola always intended to make small personal art films like The Rain People and then The Godfather happened and the trajectory of his career changed. It’s only in the last decade he’s gotten back to doing what he really wanted to do all along.
NOTE: Shirley’s a big fan of one of Coppola’s later works, Youth Without Youth.
SK: “I thought that was amazing, fascinating. It was a very mystical film.”
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