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

October 18, 2014 1 comment

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duff and Morrison enjoyed great freedom on the project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Payne’s Local Color: Payne and Co. Mine the Prairie Poetry of His Home State in New American Gothic Film, ‘Nebraska’

November 21, 2013 5 comments

I’ve been anticipating Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska for a very long time.  Some years ago he let me read the script by Bob Nelson.  I was moved to laughs and tears by it and ever since then I’ve eagerly awaited Payne’s interpretation of it on the screen.  As I write this I’ve now seen the film twice and will soon be seeing it a third time.  Its depth of emotion coupled with its visual black and white beauty and aching honesty set the film apart from just about anything out there by an American filmmaker today.  I believe it to be Payne’s best work to date.  I know a little something about the filmmaker, having closely covered him and his work since 1997.  I have a book out with my collected jounralism about him titled Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.  It contains some two dozen of my Payne stories from 1998 through 2012 and soon I will be coming out with a new edition featuring my extensive Nebraska coverage.  My latest story about the film is shared with you here.  It recently appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I fully expect to file a new story about Nebraska come Academy Awards time, when the film should fare very well.  You can find my earlier stories about Nebraska on this blog.  I’ll salso be adding another Nebraska story I just finished for the New Horizons.  Additionally, I will be posting extended interviews I did with Payne, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, Bob Nelson, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and producer Albert Berger.

 

 

 

 

Alexander Payne‘s Local Color: Payne and Co. Mine the Prairie Poetry of His Home State in the New American Gothic Film, ‘Nebraska‘ 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from a story that originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Local color, of the achingly human variety, is where Alexander Payne’s new black and white film Nebraska most deeply comes to life.

After fall festival premieres abroad and across the U.S., Payne’s coming home to show off the film named for his native state and primarily shot and set here. Nebraska had an exclusive limited run at Film Streams. On Nov. 24 Payne joins stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte at the Holland Performing Arts Center for the Film Streams fundraiser, Feature V, that will find the troika interviewed on stage by Studio 360 host and novelist Kurt Andersen.

The following day Payne and Dern travel to Norfolk, Neb., the production’s base camp last fall while the project filmed in nearby Hartington, Plainview and environs, to premiere the picture there.

Oscar-winner Payne is a stickler for the truth and with the by-turns elegiac and silly Nebraska he went to extreme lengths finding the people and places that ring true to his and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s vision of Midwest America.

“This is the most authentically Neb. feature film I’ve released to date,” says Payne, who previously made Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt in-state.

Casting director John Jackson and Payne searched long and hard for the right players to animate the oddball yet familiar characters Nelson created on the page. In a rare star turn winning him much acclaim Bruce Dern so fully inhabits his old codger of a character, Woody Grant, that despite the actor’s well-known face and voice he disappears into the part to become just another of the story’s small town denizens.

Dern plays Woody as written: a taciturn man of stoic roots and repressed pain long alienated from everyone around him. Feeling a failure near the end of his life, he’s desperate for some validation and so gets it in his head that he’s a sweepstakes winner. His son David, played by Will Forte, takes him on an epic journey to claim the prize. Amid the missteps and detours comes discovery, empathy and closure. As their strained relationship warms the son gives his father a gift born of understanding, forgiveness and love.

One of the reasons Payne says Dern leapt to mind when he originally read the script a decade ago is that like the actor’s actress daughter Laura Dern, who starred in Payne’s feature debut Citizen Ruth, he doesn’t worry about what he looks like on screen. To convincingly play the gone-to-seed Woody the actor inhabiting the role had to look a wreck.

“Those Derns don’t have vanity,” Payne says admiringly. “They’ll do anything, they want to do anything. When working they’re more interested in hitting a certain level of truth, an often ugly truth or pathetic truth, and now you’re talking my language.”

About what made Dern the right fit, Payne says, “Bruce is a handsome guy when he’s cleaned up and obviously as you can see in the film when he’s not cleaned up he can really look like a coot and a weirdo. If you took many other actors and tried to do the same thing they’d look fake. The guy would have to portray someone cut off from others and lost in his own world. Woody’s probably been like that somewhat his whole life but as a young man they just thought he was reticent. Now he’s a coot and ornery and pissed off at himself that he hasn’t done anything with his life and now he’s about to start taking a dirt nap. I think that’s certainly what’s driving Woody’s crazy mission in some part.

“When I thought about who could communicate that I thought of Bruce.”

Payne felt Dern could express the two sides of Woody as both prick and pushover who can’t refuse doing favors, even if it means being taken advantage of. He also detected “a certain childlike nature” in Dern that aligned with Woody’s fragility.

“I think within Woody’s ornery crust there is something of a child – of a very disillusioned and disappointed child.”

Indeed, we first meet Woody as he’s running away from home.

“There’s also a sweetness about Woody and Bruce is a sweet guy. He hasn’t often played that.”

 

 

 

 

Dern acknowledges it’s a departure for him. “Throughout my career I’ve been flamboyant in a lot of roles, especially flamboyantly evil, and there’s a certain style that goes with that.” Nebraska called for him to be a dull, muted, passive presence.

“What the role demanded was a character who appeared to not be touched too much or too little,” he says, “and probably not touched at all. And if he touches other people it’s without planning to do it. He’s just who he is and he’s always going to be that way. I think he’s a fair man, Woody, and that’s another thing I based the character on a lot. Because he’s fair he believes what people tell him because he doesn’t know why anybody would want to lie to him about anything.”

The tangibles and intangibles of a character go into any casting decision.

“When you cast someone in a lead you’re not casting just his or her ability to act,” says Payne. “you’re casting the substance or essence of their person. There’s two things going on simultaneously seemingly contradictory but not. One is you want them to become that person in the script yet at the same time not act.”

Dern says Payne has an uncanny way of communicating what he wants, variously tapping “your strengths and weaknesses and sometimes invading your privacy” to extract the emotion or tone he’s after.

Actors Studio veteran Dern believes he achieved a progressive in-the-moment reality in Nebraska he’d never accomplished before on a film.

“I’ve always wanted to be a human being and just kind of acting-wise leave myself alone and not perform and I don’t think there’s really a moment in the movie where I perform – in other words take it above the context of what it really is. The first day of the movie Alexander said to me, ‘I’d like you to let Mr. Papamichael (cinematographer) and I do our jobs,’ meaning don’t show me anything, let me find it with the camera, and that’s what he did and that’s what you see.

“That doesn’t mean I wasn’t acting. It was as hard a role as I’ve had to take on but I feel I owed it to the material and to my career for just once in my life to try and have as many consecutive moment-to-moment pure moments of behavior. That’s what I began when I worked with Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasberg in the Actor’s Studio – how much moment-to-moment real behavior can you have? And I think in Nebraska I’ve done far and away the most I’ve had in an entire film.”

Forte, a relative newcomer to acting after years writing for television, says he learned a lot from his co-star.

“Bruce would always say, ‘Just be truthful,’ and that always sounded like acting mumbo jumbo to me coming in but for some reason the way he would explain it and describe it it made sense. There’s such an honesty that comes from his performance and all the performances that it really taught me a lot to watch everyone work.”

Dern says Payne lived up to what his daughter Laura and his old acting chum Jack Nicholson, who starred in the director’s About Schmidt, told him about the filmmaker: “They both said in separate conversations he’ll be the best teammate you’ve ever had. They were right. I feel it’s the best team, overall, I’ve ever had.”

Payne, whose sets are famously relaxed, says he also casts with an eye to who will “be nice to work with” and contribute to the playfulness he believes essential to good filmmaking. “I want to be there to play. I don’t know exactly how it (any scene) should be, I’m there to sort of say, ‘Oh, well, let’s try this and let’s try that, nudging the machine toward a certain direction. It’s not all preconceived, you’re discovering it day by day, so I think you want actors who are willing to have a sense of, Let’s be playful and free. It’s all about having fun, and that will create something none of us have thought of exactly.”

Dern says he’s glad it took nearly a decade to get the film made – the project came to Payne as the filmmaker was setting up Sideways  – because “I wasn’t ready to play this role a few years ago.” The passage of time put some more natural wear and tear on Dern, both physically and emotionally. The limp he walks with in the film is real, if exaggerated, and the way Woody leaves things unsaid is something Dern says he’s been guilty of himself and regrets.

Similarly, Payne’s personal life caught up with the experience of David in Nebraska  as an adult child dealing with aging parents. Payne’s father is in a nursing home and his mother recently survived a serious health scare.

“I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folks,” Payne says. “Everyone I know of my generation at that age has parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy. How we take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, and how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off, all those questions. It wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal. The fact that I had that much more life experience for this film with respect to my parents, I think helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”

 

 

 

 

Payne says the bottomed-out economy also enhanced the austere shooting style and stark look of the film, adding, “Those winds blew their way into the film as well and it becomes more of a modern-day Depression film.”

Undoubtedly some will take umbrage at the film’s portrayals of quirky. salt-of-the-earth types. But if the strong reception the picture’s received at the Cannes, Telluride and New York film festivals, among others, is any indication, than most audiences realize Payne and his collaborators sought archetype, not caricature in bringing to life small town inhabitants and the dysfunctional Grant family.

“I hope what people take away from this movie is his genuine love for Neb. because he really does love Neb.,” says Forte

Dern calls the film “a love poem” to Neb. from Payne.

Payne, Nelson, Jackson, Papamichael, editor Kevin Tent assorted other crew and the ensemble cast all committed to realizing authentic portraits of this comic-dramatic Midwest Gothic tale.

 

 

 

 

 

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN THE SOON TO BE RELEASED NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through his new film Nebraska in 2013)

This compilation of my extensive articles about Payne and his work will be available in February 2014.  

 

Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: The Filmmaker Speaks Candidly About ‘Nebraska,’ Casting, Screenwriting and Craft

September 24, 2013 5 comments

  1. Photo: Photo by Travis Beck
    Todd Nelson interviewing Alexander Payne at the Sept. 9 Nebraska Coast Connection                                                                                                                                          Hollywood  Salon I was at to promote my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.”
    ©Photo by Travis Beck
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Sept. 9 monthly Hollywood Salon in Culver City, Calif. sponsored by the Nebraska Coast Connection, a networking group for Nebraskans working in the film and television industry.  I was there to promote my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, which you can order via thisblog site.  The salon’s special guest that night was Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne, who spoke candidly about his new film Nebraska, casting, screenwriting and craft in a Q&A moderated by NCC founder Todd Nelson.  The event was held at the classic Culver Hotel, where many film stars stayed back in the day.  This is an edited transcript of part of Payne’s remarks.
  1. Photo: Photo by Travis Beck
    Part of the audience at Payne’s NCC salon appearance, ©photo by Travis Beck

 

Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: The Filmmaker Speaks Candidly About ‘Nebraska,’ Casting, Screenwriting and Craft

©Compiled by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt of Alexander Payne in conversation with Nebraska Coast Connection founder Todd Nelson

 

AP: “Hello, good evening, thank you for coming…”

TN: “You have a little movie coming out. A little black and white number you threw together over a weekend or two.”

AP: “No, longer than that. But it’s a small movie. That doesn’t mean it’s not dramatically resonant, but it’s a small movie.”

(Then Payne addressed how the project came to him and the background of how its screenwriter Robert Nelson came to write it.)

AP: “Nine years ago I got a script from Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the team that had produced Election. They came to me nine or 10 years ago with a script called Nebraska and it was written by a guy named Bob Nelson out of Snohomish, Wash. but his parents were from Hartington (Neb.). And it was based on his memory of his father’s and mother’s families. He used to spend his summers out there in Hartington in northeast Neb. and he wrote this script based on his memories of those summers and it really rang hilariously true. It was a very austere screenplay. Those producers said they suspected it was going to be small for me, too dinky a film.”

TN: “They thought you might know someone who…”

AP: “Yeah, ‘Do you know a young Neb. filmmaker who might want to do this?’ and I said, ‘No, I think I want to do it.’ They had wanted to make it for like $2 or $3 million, and I said, ‘How about like $10 or $12?’ I showed it not long afterwards to someone in attendance here tonight, John Jackson, my casting director, because I knew that this film would really live or die on his casting. I mean, all films do but even a couple percentage points more this one would because it’s as much anthropological as it is cinematic. And he liked it and thought he wanted to cast it. He said he felt a very personal connection to it through his family, whom he describes as dirt farmers from Iowa. That’s a bit of an exaggeration in a way with respect to the script but still it’s suggestive…

“A lot of the movie was a road trip and I was just finishing Sideways. I didn’t want to followup Sideways with another road trip film. It’s a real drag to shoot in cars and I just couldn’t do another car movie again after Sideways. Now The Descendants ended up having some stuff in cars too but anyway…the timing worked out and right after The Descendants I made it. They were nice enough to wait – the producers and the writer  – and so it happened.”

TN: “It has Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Tell us about bringing them on board.”

AP: “Bruce Dern had first leapt to mind  to play this part. All parts are tricky to cast in general but this one I think for John and me has been the trickiest. You know. I get praised sometimes for getting a certain controlled performance out of Jack Nicholson or that I get stars to create characters, that after 10 or 15 minutes of seeing a big star like George Clooney you can maybe, hopefully, of course it’s my aspiration, forget it’s a big star and just see the character…I  never tailor a screenplay to fit the actor. I always demand the actor come to the script – even if it’s Nicholson or Clooney, who have certain strengths that most directors and screenwriters would wish to exploit.

“Naw, this is a text and it’s a part and yes you’re a star but you’re also an actor, so come to this and make it your own that way. This though I think has been the most specific lead part we’ve ever had to cast. Not anyone could play this guy Woody Grant. I looked back in film history and said, ‘Well, Henry Fonda could have played it like the way he did On Golden Pond, or Walter Brennan, or for you film buffs out there Charley Grapewin,  or possibly John Carradine or possibly Warren Oates had he lived. But all those people are unavailable. After thinking about Bruce Dern, the only other guy who maybe could have done it, Gene Hackman, but I couldn’t get a meeting with Gene Hackman because he genuinely has retired. He won’t even return a phone call or a query. So it just came down to Bruce Dern.

“We did our due diligence and met 50 other guys and any one of them who could have done it would still be a stretch. Like this one could maybe do it but he has trouble learning lines or this one could maybe do it but you’d have to get him to not do this schtick or this one could maybe have done it but it would have taken more work on my part and every actor requires work anyway. Bruce required work but less work than any of those other guys would have required to get it right, so Bruce Dern’s the guy.”

TN: “Will Forte?”

AP: “Never would have thought about him in a billion years but he auditioned well. So I know often in these salons we get actors or casting people and I’m always happy to say that John and I rely on auditions, the old fashioned way. Even actors who are well known I still need them to come in and read the text, with all respect. I mean, even if it’s 10 words, say a few words, help me out, I have a pea brain, I don’t want to screw it up, and I don’t want to screw up and cast you in the wrong part and then it’s not right. We all benefit if we’re able to have a meeting. Well, what else are we going to talk about? Read the fucking script.

“And to good pros, the ones who won’t audition, but they will deign to have a meeting, the good ones will either consciously or unconsciously find the time in the meeting to say, ‘Oh, I loved the moment in your screenplay where he says…’ and he’ll do a little bit of it. That’s the courteous thing to do, that’s the polite thing to do because those actors who won’t even do that don’t get the job in my experience.

“Just about auditioning stuff I remember the actress Judy Greer, a super great old fashioned  in the best way actor. She’s in The Descendants. She plays the lover’s wife. She calls herself an audition-only actress. She won’t take an offer and if there’s a meeting she insists on reading the script because she says it’s only when I read the text in front of the director do I know if I’m right for the part. So the direct line of communication between actor and director is that text. That’s just smart. What the hell else are we doing?

“June Squibb, she played the part of Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt (and she plays Bruce Dern’s wife in Nebraska)…I didn’t offer her…She didn’t occur to me, she sent in an audition. Even she had to audition. I had no idea she was going to be right for this part. It’s the Geraldine Page part or the Marjorie Main part from Ma and Pa Kettle. Basically Nebraska’s a glorified Ma and Pa Kettle film,” he said, deadpanning and elicting laughs.

(Payne discussed some more actors he’s worked with, why’s he’s particularly proud of the casting he and John Jackson did on Nebraska and how he tried to avoid certain pitfalls that come with mixing professional and nonprofessional actors on screen.)

“Tim Driscoll from Omaha, who had a small part in Citizen Ruth, came back for this one.  And his sister (Delaney Driscoll) had a significant part in Election as Matthew Broderick’s lover.

“Whatever achievements this film Nebraska may or may not have for me it’s greatest achievement is its most significant marriage of professional and nonprofessional actors because to create that world it’s dependent equally on production design and casting. That’s what suggests that world is that flesh. We spent over a year doing it. The start date is here, the visual preproduction is here, the casting has to start here. You can’t fuck up casting, you’ve got to get the right people in every part and of course the leads and the secondary, tertiary parts have to be exactly right. It’s creating a world.

“I looked at a number of small town American films for this one. One of them in particular is an excellent film and it has professional actors but also people cast from that small town. But there’s a great chasm between the acting styles of the two. It’s like the faces of the real people lend what they’re supposed to lend which is authenticity, versmisilitude and all that but they’re not acting properly, even as versions of themselves. So I knew we had to spend time to get local people who could act as vividly as possible as versions of themselves but also to have the professional actors act flatter. They both had to meet in between. I like when professional actors act more flatly like people do in real life. People don’t gesticulate, go into histrionics in real life, not Midwesterners anyway.”

 

 

Me with Payne at NCC Hollywood Salon, ©photo by Travis Beck

 

 

(Nelson and Payne then made a few comments before screening the trailer for Nebraska.)

TN: “It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. A wild success I can witness – I was there. I saw a 15 minute standing ovation at the end of the film.”

AP: “Yeah, I’ve seen turkeys get a standing ovation at Cannes. It played better at Telluride.”

(Then, referring to the trailer, Payne said)-

AP: “This is a work in progress print.”

(After the screening someone in the audience commented about the Spanish sounding music, which prompted Payne to describe it as a)-

AP: “More Mexican sounding trumpet piece.”

 

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE Q&A IN THE SOON TO BE RELEASED NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through his new film Nebraska in 2013)

This compilation of my extensive coverage of Payne and his work will be available in February 2014.  

 

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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

February 28, 2013 1 comment

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.

 

 

Yolonda Ross

 

 

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.”

 

 

Breaking Night

 

 

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.

Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ 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

January 6, 2013 5 comments

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.

Alexander Payne and Bruce Dern on location with Nebraska

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt of a story that originally appeared 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.

 

 

Photo: SAM© “Yesterday, at the company party, I made a joke and everyone laughed and said, “Hey, now there’s the Sam Herron we all know and love.” and I smiled, but inside I thought, “Actually, the Sam Herron you know and love was my clone, who I had to murder because he kept eating all my leftovers.”

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.

 

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN THE SOON TO BE RELEASED NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through his new film Nebraska in 2013)

This compilation of my extensive articles about Payne and his work will be available in February 2014.  

 

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Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ Comes Home to Roost: The State’s Cinema Prodigal Son is Back Filming Again in his Home State after Long Absence

October 26, 2012 12 comments

I call Alexander Payne Neb.’s cinema prodigal son because he left here to find himself as a filmmaker, then he came back to make his first three features in his home state, only to leave again to make Sideways and The Descendants in faraway Calif. and Hawaii, respectively.  And now, after a 11-year absence filming here he’s back shooting his new pic, Nebraska.  In truth, he was never really gone-gone.  He’s maintained a residence in Omaha all along and has returned innumerable times for all sorts of things.  That he’s returned to make a feature with the name of his native state in the title and is doing so after the immense success of The Descendants only makes Payne, who’s already the most compelling living Nebraskan outside perhaps Warren Buffett, only more a figure of intense interest.  The following cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the first of what I anticipate will be a whole string of pieces I do related to this film.  My reporting on the project converges with my new book out on the filmmaker, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012, which you’ll find plenty of posts about on this blog.  My coverage of Nebraska will undoubtedly end up in future editions of the book.

 

 

 

 

Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ Comes Home to Roost: The State’s Cinema Prodigal Son is Back Filming Again in His Home State after Long Absence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt of a story that originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In 1968 Francis Ford Coppola led a small cinema caravan to Ogallala, Neb. for the final weeks shooting on his independent road picture The Rain People starring Shirley Knight. Joining them were future fellow film legends George Lucas, Bill Butler, Robert Duvall and James Caan.

Now a road pic of another kind, Nebraska, is underway here by native prodigal son Alexander Payne. For his first filming on his home turf since 2001 Payne’s lit out into northeast Neb. to make a fourth consecutive road movie after the wandering souls of his About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants.

Nebraska began shooting October 15 around Norfolk, where the production’s headquartered, and will complete 35 days of principal photography by the end of November. A week of second unit work will run into early December.

The project is set up between Payne, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa’s Bona Fide Productions and Paramount Pictures.

Despite proclamations he doesn’t care for road movies, much less shooting in cars,  Payne’s once again attached himself to a story of lost and broken people careening to some revelation about themselves.

Asked why he keeps returning to this theme or structure, he says, “I have no idea, I personally don’t really like road movies all that much and it’s all I seem to make. No, none of it’s intentional, I’m a victim. Yeah, it just happened.”

Characters hitting the road is a classic metaphorical device for any life-as-journey exploration and Payne’s not so much reinvented this template as made it his own.

“I think self-discovery is a big theme in his movies,” says Berger.

The protagonist of Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) goes in search of meaning via his mobile home after his life is knocked asunder. In Sideways buddies Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) indulge in a debauched tour of Calif. wine country that rekindles the love impulse in one and confirms the unreliability of the other.

The by-car, boat and foot journey of The Descendants is propelled when Matt King (George Clooney) discovers his dying wife’s infidelity and sets off to find her lover. What he really finds is closure for his pain and the father within him he’d forgotten.

The bickering father-son of Nebraska, Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte), hold different agendas for their trek along the highways and byways of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and northern Nebraska. Woody, a unrepentant, alcoholic old coot estranged from everyone in his life, is hellbent on collecting a sweepstakes prize that doesn’t exist. David, the good-hearted but exasperated son, decides to placate his pops by promising to drive him from Billings. Mont. to the prize company’s home office in Lincoln, Neb. by way of several detours. He’s sure his father will come to his senses long before their destination.

This mismatched pair’s road-less-traveled adventure in the son’s car finds them passing through Woody’s old haunts, including his hometown, the fictional Hawthorne, Neb., a composite of Hartington, Wausa, Bloomfield, Norfolk and other rural burgs. At nearly every stop they encounter the detritus from Woody’s life, which like the broken down Ford pickup in his garage he can’t get to run is a shambles of regret and recrimination. Woody’s made the fool wherever he goes.

A longtime nemesis, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), is a menacing presence.

By story’s end this father-son journey turns requiem. To salve his father’s broken spirit David performs a simple act of grace that gives Woody a valedictory last laugh.

 

 

 

 

Producer partners Berger and Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine), who shepherded Payne’s Election in conjunction with Paramount and MTV Films (1999), brought Bob Nelson’s original script for Nebraska to the filmmaker’s attention a decade ago.

Payne says, “Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa had gotten a hold of it, and asked me to read it, not thinking I would want to direct it myself. They wanted to know if there was some young up and coming Neb. director I knew about who could make it for a very, very low sum, and I read it and I liked it and I said, ‘How about me and for a sum not quite so low?’ And so it was, and they’ve been kind enough to wait for me these eight or nine years since I first read it.

“I read it before making Sideways but I didn’t want to follow up Sideways with another road trip. I was tired of shooting in cars. I didn’t think it would take this long, I didn’t think Downsizing (his as yet unrealized comedy about miniaturization) would take so long to write in between. And then The Descendants came along and now I’ve circled back around to this austere Neb. road trip story.”

The story’s essential appeal for Payne is its deceptive simplicity.

“I liked its austerity, I liked its deadpan humor, I like how the writer clearly was writing about people he knew and representing them faithfully to a certain degree but also sardonically. And I’ve never seen a deadpan, almost Jim Jarmusch sort of comedy that takes place in rural Nebraska.”

 

 

Phedon Papamichael

 

 

The barren, existential landscape should find ample expressive possibilities in the black-and-white, wide-screen visuals Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (SidewaysThe Descendants) plan capturing. Papamichael says the palette they’ve hit upon after much testing emphasizes natural lighting and texture. They’re using a high contrast stock from the ’70s that’s less sharp or defined. Film grain is being added to it.

“We’re really coming to appreciate and love the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes” says Papamichael, “and of course the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story. It’s scaling the human drama and comedy with this vast landscape. It’s a road movie but it’s also a very intimate, small personal story.”

“Well, I certainly wanted to make one feature film in my career in black and white because black and white when well-done is just so beautiful,” says Payne. “And I knew that whatever film I made in black and white couldn’t have a huge budget, so this one seemed to lend itself to that that way. Then also in reading it I wanted the austerity of the characters and of their world represented also in a fairly austere way and I thought black and white in the fall could be very nice. By that I mean ideally after the trees have lost their leaves – to just get that look.

“Sometimes where you’re in rural America there is a certain timeless quality in all those small towns which have the old buildings. You know, change comes slowly to these places.”

In terms of visual models, he says, “we’ve looked at a number of black and white films and photographs but it’s not like I’m consciously saying, ‘Oh, Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange’ (or The Last Picture Show) or something like that. No, not really. I mean, I’ve seen them. We’re just going to follow instinct in how this one should look like.”

 

 

Albert Berger

 

 

Berger supports Payne’s aesthetic choice, though it came with a price and a fight as Paramount execs reportedly resisted the decision to forgo color. But Payne and Papamichael held firm. Berger feels the project gives Payne a new creative space to work in.

“I always was excited artistically about what he was trying to accomplish,” says Berger. “Clearly we would have gotten a lot more money if we didn’t film in black and white and life would have been a lot easier for the production. Alexander’s films have always had a very authentic look. He’s obviously a great appreciator of cinema and he has a wonderful eye and I think in a way this is his first opportunity to showcase a more iconic, archetypal look.”

Payne may just do for the northeast Sand Hills what John Ford did for Utah’s Monument Valley in capturing a certain beautiful desolation. The play of light on wind, barns, trees and wide open spaces offers evocative chiaroscuro possibilities.

“I think it’s exciting to see what he and Phedon will come up with here,” says Berger. “And it’s scope as well and so that will add yet another dimension. And digital for the first time for him and it’s going to be interesting how that helps us getting in tight spaces like cars and using low level lighting. There’s all sorts of tools at his disposal on this one that he hasn’t had before.”

Berger’s come to know Payne’s meticulous eye for finding locations and actors that ring true.

“Once the script is right and once the cast and the locations are in place I feel he’s completely ready to make the movie. I wouldn’t say the rest is easy but I think that is the critical bedrock upon which his movies are made. I think he’s a filmmaker who’s completely in-tune with what he’s trying to say both emotionally and comedically.  It’s been a real pleasure to be able to watch this evolution in his work.”

 

 

Bruce Dern, ©projects.latimes.com
Payne says the more specific the character on the page the harder it is to cast, which is why his search for the right Woody and David took so long.

“I just know in the time frame in which I was trying to get this film made these guys rose to the top of my research and struck me and John Jackson, my casting director, as being the right fit.,” Payne says of Dern and Forte.

The irascible yet playful Woody proved most difficult.

“In this case Woody’s a very, very specifically rendered character and I just couldn’t plug any actor in there,” Payne says.

He interviewed-auditioned many, including big names. For the longest time no one matched his conceptions.

“In today’s world it was kind of hard to find someone whom I believed in that part and I didn’t want it to change the character of Woody.”

No compromising.

He finally found his Woody in Bruce Dern, whose daughter Laura Dern starred in Payne’s Citizen Ruth and remains a close friend. What made Papa Dern (Silent RunningComing HomeFamily Plot) the perfect Woody?

“Well, he’s of the right age now and he can be both ingenuous and ornery. And he’s a cool actor. And in a contextual level I haven’t seen on the big screen a great Bruce Dern performance in a few years and I’m curious to see what he can do. He’s a helluva nice guy as well.”

 

 

Will Forte

 

 

 

Bob Nelson

 

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN THE SOON TO BE RELEASED NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through his new film Nebraska in 2013)

This compilation of my extensive articles about Payne and his work will be available in February 2014.  

Related articles

Thy Kingdom Come: Richard Dooling’s TV Teaming with Stephen King

August 16, 2012 3 comments

I have only read two things by Stephen King and I thoroughly enjoyed them both:  his celebrated novel The Shining and his equally well-regarded book for aspiring and emerging writers called On Writing.  I’ve read much more from author Richard Dooling and have thoroughly enjoyed his work, too, including the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm and the cautionary  of the singularity, Rapture for the Geeks.  So when I learned that these two had combined talents to collaborate on writing the miniseries, Kingdom Hospital, I jumped on it.  I interviewed Dooling about the project but never landed my hoped-for interview with King.  The result is the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) just as the series was about to air.  I don’t believe I watched more than a few bits and pieces of the series because I find most horror dramatizations done for television don’t much work for me.  This wasn’t the last time Dooling and King collaborated. Dooling, an Omaha native and resident, also adapted King’s short story Dolan’s Cadillac into a feature film.  In my story I try to give some insights into how these two writers work together and apart.

 

 

 

 

Thy Kingdom Come: Richard Dooling’s TV Teaming with Stephen King  

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Omaha author Richard Dooling has collaborated with the Master of Fright, Stephen King, in creating the new prime time television miniseries Kingdom Hospital, a darkly comic supernatural fable The Horrormeister himself calls a cross between ER and The Shining. Dooling, whose novel White Man’s Grave was a National Book Award finalist, said comparing the show to the venerable NBC series and King’s own classic horror novel “would be a good way to describe it because…in the same way the Overlook Hotel (in The Shining) was haunted by things that happened there in the past, the setting for our show, Kingdom Hospital, is haunted by spirits from the past, and…there’s a lot of medical stuff going on, hence the reference to ER.”

The fictional one-hour drama is inspired by the acclaimed Danish miniseries Riget (The Kingdom) from director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves). Consistent with the new prime time TV trend of limited run series, Kingdom is slated for a straight 13-week run. The opening and closing episodes are two hours apiece.

It may be a surprise that Dooling, the social satirist, has teamed with King in writing this original 15-hour miniseries debuting March 3 on ABC. Then again, Dooling, who came to literary prominence from legal-medical careers, has made a name for himself exploring the moral-ethical quandaries facing protagonists caught up in the foreboding, labyrinthian maelstroms of: the law (Brain StormWhite Man’s Grave); medicine (Critical Care); and insurance (Bet Your Life); three strange, intimidating fields and fraternities built on people’s fear of the unknown and of losing control.

In Brain Storm, a lawyer struggles with the Genie-out-of-the-bottle implications of constructing a biomedical defense for a virulent racist murderer, whose violent outbursts may or may not be triggered by faulty brain chemistry. In White Man’s Grave, a young American goes missing in the charm-filled Sierra Leone bush and his father’s well-ordered life back home comes undone when totems sent from Africa unleash malevolent forces that pull him to their source. Critical Care essays the inexorable, by turns absurd dance of death in an intensive care unit. Bet Your Life examines the elaborate insurance fraud schemes computer savvy scam artists use to bilk people of their money and, in so doing, to turn victims’ lives upside down.

Dooling was unsure himself how his work meshed with the horror genre until, he said, King reassured him with, “You don’t think you write horror, but you do.’ In White Man’s Grave…there would certainly be some elements of horror and there’s a little medical horror in Bet Your Life, especially towards the end. So, I’ll trust him, I guess.” Dooling said a horror pedigree doesn’t matter much as Kingdom Hospital is “all over the place and is so many different things,” not the least of which is its taking wicked, scatological aim at such solemn subjects as faith, life and death, thereby displaying the satiric sensibility shared by both authors.

“I never really thought he was scary, but that he always had his tongue in his cheek,” Dooling said of King. “His Misery is one of the best books ever written. I mean, it’s gruesome and everything, but it’s a very funny book. He’s a great writer, especially of slang, which I really like.” A book of essays by Dooling, Blue Streak, makes the case for colorful, colloquial language of the offensive kind. If there’s anything that connects the two men, Dooling said, it is their penchant for “black comedy. I think most of what I did with this series was black comedy, which is what I always do. So, it’s satire with some horror. And he’s funny, too.”

Ultimately, Dooling was sold on the show by a promise from King, who is its executive producer. “He said from the very beginning, ‘We can do whatever we want to.’ Since I’d never worked with him before, I didn’t know whether to believe him…I mean, I was afraid that might mean he could do whatever HE wanted. But he was telling the truth. Besides, it’s not like he’s doing it for the money, right? Steve’s in a position where he can get done what he wants…within reasonable limits. He has total control. It was important to me we could do what we wanted because I didn’t want people saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ I wanted to be able to show open brain surgery, for instance, and I didn’t want somebody telling me, ‘No’.” All that creative freedom, he added, will either have been “a blessing or a curse. I won’t know which until the Nielsen ratings.”

Such dramatic license, he said, resulted in a non-linear narrative, some of it occurring inside the heads of characters, that combines disparate elements, themes and styles. “I don’t know whether it will succeed or not, but you’ve never seen anything else like it on television, I can guarantee you. I mean, I’ve never seen drama, black comedy, spiritualism, psychics, ghosts…everything. In 30 seconds, you can go from one scene where you feel like you’re going to cry because you’re so involved with this character who’s been injured in a car accident over to slapstick or black humor and then to some appearance by a ghost during surgery.”

ABC, which has struggled finding a prime time drama hit, is eager to try something different. “Television executives are not stupid. They know they’re losing viewers,” Dooling said, “and so they’re looking for new stuff.”

Kingdom Hospital is set in arch, eccentric, God-fearing King Country — Lewiston, Maine. The well-spring for the apparitions and disturbances at the hospital is the unsettled grounds upon which the facility is built — the long destroyed Gates Falls Mill, a terrible 19th century imagined sweatshop where, the story goes, many child laborers died in an 1869 fire. The children’s restless spirits seem to inhabit the place, variously bringing peril and relief to those they encounter.

 

 

Dooling said the show’s premise — strange goings-on in “a wild place” — and its structure — episodes opening outside the hospital — encouraged he and King to “write about almost anything. You can bring almost anybody in there you want. All you have to do is make them a patient. For example, I have an earthquake scientist who gets admitted. And that’s the beauty of a series. You can bring in a character and you can either kill them right away or keep them around if they work out.”

The prospect of maintaining dramatic cohesion within such a sprawling story and among many recurring characters worried Dooling at first, but to his surprise it proved manageable. “I was afraid it would be hard, but by the time you spend so much time with the characters, you feel like it writes itself in a way because you already know them so well and you know what they would do. You have a large story that spans the whole season and then you try and make short stories that fit within that large story…and I think we held it together.” Accenting the story, he said, is the series “beautiful” cinematography and “spectacular” production design.

The staff and patients at Kingdom Hospital are as odd as the incidents befalling them. A paraplegic artist, Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman), is miraculously cured. The brilliant surgeon Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy) lives in the hospital’s basement, tending to his collection of medical equipment. The cynical Dr. Stegman (Bruce Davison) is the arrogant face of medicine. The addled Dr. Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) is oblivious to the crazy events around him. The heart of the series is the psychic hypochondriac Eleanor Druse (Diane Ladd), the older mother of a hospital orderlie, and the unstable link to a tormented girl trying to reach her from the other side.

“The driving force is Mrs. Druse,” he said, “and her attempts to contact the little ghost girl she hears crying in the elevators. Mrs. Druse tries to find out why the little girl’s spirit is stuck between the here and hereafter and how she can find rest. I really like Mrs. Druse. Everybody will. She’s a great character.”

The Druse character is lifted from Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, a series both King and Dooling admire. “It’s a little slow for American audiences, but it’s funny and it’s creepy. I recommend it,” Dooling said. “We added a lot of characters and stories and stuff of our own, but we got the main characters basically from there and we just kind of Americanized their concerns and endeavors and Steve, of course, added the whole” back story and subtext.

A lifelong New Englander, King’s fiction often takes stock of locals’ stoic, enigmatic determination even in the face of bizarre goings-on. In episode one, he dramatizes his own well-publicized brush with death in the scene of an artist, Peter Rickman, walking on a rural road and being struck by a van, which happened to King near his home in Maine. The incident places Rickman in Kingdom Hospital, where he’s left open to its many wonders and dangers. King’s own weeks-long stays in hospitals were enough to convince him, Dooling said, “that hospitals are scary places.”

When King conceived the series, he wanted a collaborator with a medical background and Dooling, who worked as a respiratory therapist in the ICU at Omaha’s Clarkson Hospital, fit the bill. Long before enlisting him as a medical consultant and writer-producer, the literary superstar had his eye on Dooling, whose work he is a fan of. King quoted from Dooling’s Brain Storm in his own book, On Writing. King also contributed a glowing back cover tribute for Dooling’s Bet Your Life, calling him “one of the finest novelists now working in America” and describing the book as “by turns horrifying, suspenseful and howlingly funny.”

In his ongoing role as consultant, Dooling ensures the accuracy of all things medical in scripts, even tweaking King’s work as needed. To do this, Dooling draws on his and others’ expertise. “If I don’t know, I have to find out. I have a lot of friends that are doctors and nurses and I call them and ask them questions.” A med tech on the set acts as another check and balance, even training actors to draw blood gases, to intubate, to hold surgical instruments, et cetera.

After consulting in the series’ early preproduction stage, Dooling began writing episodes, first in concert with King, then by himself, in the winter of 2002. The two worked intensively through March 2003. Although the scripts are long finished, “it’s never done,” Dooling said. “Things happen. They can’t get a set, they lose an actor, an actor insists their character wouldn’t say a line. Or, trying to save money, the producers change locations. That stuff goes on all the time…up until the day it’s actually shot. There’s always something to do. I’m still doing a lot of work on Kingdom Hospital, and they’re 120 days into a 140-day shooting schedule.”

King-Dooling are hardly ever in the same physical space and rarely communicate by phone. Instead, they share work and comments via cyberspace.

“A lot of it is just passing files back and forth,” Dooling said. “We do it episode by episode. We attach notes. You say, ‘Tell me what you think of this. If you like it, add some more. If you don’t, cut it.’ Or, you say something like, ‘It might be funny if we did this.’ Or, ‘What if Mrs. Druse said that?…Blah, blah, blah.’ It’s just like talking. I didn’t really mess around with his stories, except to add or fix medical dialog and medical procedures, and he really didn’t mess with my stories either. We did get together once (at King’s winter home in Florida), shortly after episode nine or ten, to figure out what to do about the end because, you know, there was still four hours left and the last episode was a two-hour segment.”

 

 

Working with the prolific King proved exhilarating and taxing. “When you work with him, it’s night and day. It was night and day for three-four months. He just works all the time. He’s working right now, I’m sure,” said Dooling, who soon found there was no point in trying to keep pace. “Well, there’s no way you can keep up. A couple times, he just passed me. He would start episode nine while I was starting eight. He just got tired of waiting, I’m sure. I mean, he never said that, but that’s probably what happened. When he gets an idea, he’s not going to sit around and wait while I catch up. He’s really a fast, fast, highly-productive, laser-beam concentration type of guy. It’s been a good experience. A definite collaboration-synergy and all the good things you want to have working with somebody.”

Dooling, who periodically goes to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the series is shooting, loves the “cosmopolitan” city but loathes visiting the set.

“I don’t really like being on the set all that much. You don’t really have much to offer there. The script is done and, you know, the director is the person who decides how the scene plays. As a writer, I feel about this teleplay the way a famous screenwriter once described screenplays: It’s not a work of art, but it’s an invitation to a bunch of other people to make a work of art. Once you have the words on the paper you have every right to complain if they’re not saying the words, but once you let go of the script an actor who’s being well-paid and who’s well-qualified is going to render those lines in collaboration with the director. And, really, to have a writer there injecting their opinion into something where it really doesn’t belong, doesn’t make sense.

“However, that said, there are times they ask the writer to come down because they have a question about the way a word is pronounced or emphasized or they ask, ‘Why did you write that she had a tissue in her hand — was that because she was crying?’ or something like that. That’s a legitimate question.”

Otherwise, the set gets to be a drag as set-ups and takes mount. “They have to do things over and over. I don’t know, I suppose it’s like rewriting a sentence.”

The buzz is that if Kingdom Hospital hits big, ABC may pick it up for the fall season. In that event, Dooling, who expects to stay with the gig, has been brainstorming story ideas with King for a new slate of episodes. “Yeah, very vague type what-might-we-do-if-there-were-another-season conversations. And then we have things we didn’t really use, because there wasn’t time, that we could use.”

Even if the show isn’t renewed, Dooling may do more TV, a medium he entered with reservations. “I was skeptical of television. But this experience has made me more accepting of it and I could see myself working in it again if I find a show I like that’s funny and dark.” Unlike film, where not one of his several screenplays has yet to be produced, he said, “the nice thing about television is, you write it, and it gets shot. So, this has been fun. There’s not the big hold up there is with feature films, where you write it and you wait three years and maybe it’ll get shot, maybe they’ll ask you to rewrite it, maybe another director will pick it up. Maybe.”

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