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
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine)
Couple’s film played to hometown crowd in Omaha Omaha native James E. Duff goes to extreme lengths feeding his film passion. He once went across the country by scooter to make a documentary. He’s directed films and taught filmmaking in Africa and Europe. His latest travels resulted in his debut narrative feature, Hank and Asha, a micro indie flick he co-wrote with his wife, Julia Morrison.
He directed and she produced the picture shot in the Czech Republic and on the Lower East Side of New York City, where the couple reside.
The film’s been well received at art houses and festivals, winning audience favorite awards. It’s now available on DVD,
Duff’s cinema journey wend its way here in May when he and Julia presented their movie at Film Streams. The Omaha premiere played to a warm, enthusiastic crowd, including his folks. It marked a special homecoming for Duff, who’s followed a long road pursuing his art.
“It was fantastic. I have such a home team here. Omaha supports their own. It’s a really special feeling to see friends and family in the theater,” he says, adding the celebratory turnout “felt like a wedding.”
It was a full circle moment for the filmmaker, whose love of cinema was stoked watching classic movies with his father, Dr. Wally Duff, as a child and habituating the Dundee Theater as a teen.
The filmmaker joins a select group of Nebraskans (Joan Micklin Silver, Dan Mirvish, Alexander Payne) who’ve directed widely seen features.
James Duff and Julia Morrison
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.
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.
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.”
Omaha’s film culture is radically improved over even a decade ago. One of the reasons for that is the Omaha Film Festival, an annual film orgy now in its ninth year. It’s the city’s single largest and most intense concentration of film and even though the actual festival only happens once a year the organization sponsors special screenings and events throughout the year to keep the cinema embers burning. Taken together with the metro’s lone full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, which operates year-round, locals and visitors alike have a huge selection of films and film events to choose from. Less than an hour away another great art cinema, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, operates in Lincoln, Neb. The state also boasts a robust film community made up industry professionals who reside here, including three Oscar winners (writer-director Alexander Payne, editor Mike Hill, and cinematographer Mauro Fiore) and several others who’ve distinguished themselves in film (Sandy Venziano, John Beasley, Nik Fackler, Lew Hunter, Mark Hoeger, Dana Altman, Richard Dooling). A recent addition to that community is Timothy Christian, whose Night Fox Entertainment is a film financing and producing company. Payne brings a steady diet of Hollywood with him courtesy of the features he makes here, most recently Nebraska, and the film figures he invites here (Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderberg, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb).
The 2014 Omaha Film Festival is underway as I write this. It runs March 5-9 at the Marcus Village Pointe Cinema. On this same blog see my companion feature story on Omaha native James Marshall Crotty, who has two documentaries in the fest, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids.
Omaha Film Festival turns nine
by Leo Adam Biga
The March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival has gone all digital with its move from Regal Omaha Stadium 16 to Marcus Village Pointe Cinema at 304 No. 174th Street.
Besides the sharper projection offered, OFF Program director Marc Longbrake says the new site is near a higher density population area and the cineplex gets more traffic than the Regal. This marks the fourth venue change in the nine-year history of the little little festival that could, whose growth has been steady if not spectacular.
Ninety-two films from around the nation and the world (20 countries), including several from Neb. and surrounding states, will be screened.
Among the narrative features with a trail of buzz behind them are the opening night selection Obvious Child with its cast of bright newcomers and veteran character actors, the Friday night special Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the closing night entry Fading Gigolo with Sofia Vergara, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Live Schreiber and John Turturro, who wrote-directed it.
Documentary filmmakers from here who have work represented in the fest include James Marshall Crotty (Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids), Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette (Growing Cities) and Elizabeth Bohart (Watchers of the Sky). Theo Love, whose family is from Neb., directed Little Hope was Arson.
The live-action shorts include one, Afronauts, co-starring Omaha native Yolonda Ross, who’s drawing raves for her work in the new John Sayles film Go for Sisters (March 25 at Film Streams).
Longbrake says the five-day event is not only an opportunity for filmgoers to see loads of new work but for filmmakers to get their blood, sweat and tears seen by a live audience.
“As a filmmaker you work so hard to get your film made, then you sit in an editing room for a year to finish it, and it’s one thing to send it out to have people review it but it’s another thing to sit in a room with 200 people and have them react to the film and then do a Q&A afterwards.”
For the second year Writer’s Theatre, under the direction of Aaron Zavitz, will showcase live readings of the 16 finalist scripts in the OFF screenplay competition. Several of the scripts are by locals.
The fest’s annual conference will as usual feature guests with serious industry chops. This year’s lineup includes screenwriters Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire) and Steve Faber (Wedding Crashers).
For schedule and ticket info, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.
Sick Birds Die Easy falls uneasily in that long lineage of films about Westerners who go to Third World nations and become part of the legacy of exploitation that happens there. Nik Fackler’s new film set mostly in the jungles of Gabon, Africa is a wonderfully strange concoction because part of his intent with it was to indict the sort of post-colonial entitlement and paternalism that finds privileged Westerners spoiling paradises, in this case ancient Bwiti culture and the use of Iboga, with their poisioned attitudes and behaviors. His other intent was to find healing for a crew member and friend. But since his film straddles the line of documentary and fictional film, with some scenes real and others fabricated, it may actually have the reverse affect of what he intended. Regardless of how you feel about what he depicts and how he depicts it, he does capture arresting, sometimes beauitfully surreal visuals and poses some profound questions. It is one of those works that will likely leave you hot or cold about it. It took me two or three viewings before I fell into its quixotic internal rhythms and logic. This weird mash-up of The Last Movie, The Emerald Forest and Apocalpyse Now is definitely worth a look. It’s been playing festivals and now it’s come to his hometown, Omaha, for a one-night only screening at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at Film Streams. The writer-director will do a Q&A after the show. This is my soon to appear piece about the project for The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Nik Fackler’s ‘Sick Birds Die Easy’ captures a paradise lost
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Filmmaker, musician and psychedelia aficionado Nik Fackler is a millennial seeker. It’s no surprise then he followed his well-crafted made-in-Omaha feature debut Lovely, Still (2008) with documentaries exploring cultures half-a-world away.
One doc brought him to Nepal to capture the phenomenon of a boy buddha returned from remote self-exile back into civilization. That untitled film is as yet unfinished. The completed other doc, Sick Birds Die Easy, brought Fackler to Ebando Village in Gabon, Africa in 2011, to contrast ancient Bwiti culture with modern Western culture.
After a taxing shoot and edit the visually-arresting Sick Birds hit festivals last year. Now it has a one-night screening at Film Streams. Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. Fackler will do a post-show Q&A.. He’ll surely address the pic’s self-referential depiction of privileged cultural tourists, namely himself and his crew, experimenting with Iboga and its well-known hallucinogenic effects and reputed healing properties and the surreal, self-indulgent weirdness that ensued.
Fackler intentionally encouraged mayhem – from giving every crew member a camera to not securing an interpreter to bringing along two addicts to working without a structure.
“Shooting the film was a complete disaster,” he says. “I was setting up a disaster for myself because that’s what I wanted it to be.”
Mentor-producer Dana Atman reluctantly went and soon regretted it.
“He didn’t want to do it, he didn’t want to come to Africa,” Fackler says of Altman, who’s since taken a step back from filmmaking. “He had the hardest job. There’s so much behind the scenes he had to deal with, like how difficult it was to get us fed and how the Ebando were constantly renegotiating how much money we needed to give them for their help. This was happening every day and it was all on Dana’s shoulders. There were a lot of times he wouldn’t come on set.”
Several days of shooting presented Fackler, who edited alone, a daunting task once back home.
“Editing Sick Birds was hell. I had literally hundreds of hours of footage.
It was like taking a pile of chaos and making order out of it. It’s definitely a film made in the editing room.
“I didn’t know what documentary editing was going to be like. I should have known it would take a lot longer than narrative. It’s a really tough process.”
The project’s harsh realities – everyone got wasted and sick and relationships were strained – humbled Fackler. But playing God still comes with the territory. In voice-over narration and interviews he makes clear he sought to find in Gabon a lost Eden that is the antithesis of the West. From his POV America is a sick nation that destroys the indigenous cultures it touches. In this first-person, Werner Herzog-like immersion into a strange land he shows the collision of two cultures and the inevitable spoiling and corrupting of paradise.
Even though he says off-camera, “This is not the film I meant to make,” he clearly manipulates things to arrive where he intended to be.
The set-up finds Fackler enlisting two addict friends for the journey. Small farmer-actor-comedian Ross Brockley spouts paranoia, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. He ostensibly goes to kick his heroin habit. Musician-poet-alcoholic Sam Martin goes as the company’s resident “minstrel” and acerbic archival of Ross. In Gabon the team meets Tatayo, a French expatriate initiate in Bwiti spiritual practices whose gone jungle wild with mysticism, ritual and drugs (think Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now).
We appear to see Fackler and his on-screen crew, all playing versions of themselves, shooting a doc. Fackler is the intrepid writer-director seemingly intent on getting his film at any cost. But the film was actually lensed by Lovely, Still director of photography Sean Kirby, who’s unseen and only referred to in the credits.
Fackler acknowledges some dramatic moments in his film-within-a-film were staged. Given this odd melange, which he calls “a hyper creative” hybrid of documentary and drama, he may field some tough questions from purists who prefer more definition or transparency.
So is Sick Birds real or contrived?
“It’s all those things,” he says. “What’s real is the guts of it, the history and Bwiti, my interviews with Tatayo, the Iboga ceremony, Ross getting up in the middle of it and yelling at Tatayo. None of that was planned. When you see us all fucked up on Iboga and tired we really are fucked up and tired. That’s pretty accurate. That was part of the disaster.”
Montage of production stills from Sick Birds Die Easy
Real or not, the film indicts self-indulgent Westerners running amok in a pristine land.
Fackler says he did assemble an edit where he revealed at the end “it was all fake” but he preferred the “enigma of weirdness and questions.” That other version, he says, “didn’t spawn any questions or conversation, but when people thought it was real it spawned this wave of conversation. I loved that.”
“The lesson I learned is that the more you research the great enigmas you’re going to get more questions. There are no answers.”
Besides, he adds, “Bwiti is a trickster culture and the film itself is a trickster film. It’s not a traditional film. It’s not one that is safe in any way. What I like about the art of filmmaking is you can take people to a place and attempt to put them in a mind-altered state. I like mind-altered states. I like to show there’s more to life than just your current perception.”
With Sick Birds Fackler tried breaking from hidebound filmmaking.
“There’s different ways of doing film. I did the music video thing (for Saddle Creek Records label artists), and I did the narrative feature thing and learned about using my intuition through that. I’d go to set every day with Lovely, Still with a shot list and by the end of shooting I didn’t have anything, I was just showing up on set and looking at everything and saying, ‘OK, this is how to shoot this scene.’ This (Sick Birds) was an extreme version of that.”
Nik Fackler gone jungle wild
Even though no one’s “saved” in the end, Fackler says, “I really believe in Iboga and I’ve seen it work for people. But I learned you can’t change people. If anything, Ross has gotten even more paranoid.”
Fackler, a recreational drug user and alternative health adherent, hopes his film’s depiction of wayward Westerners doesn’t distort the path of fellow travelers seeking enlightenment and cure,
“I wouldn’t want Ebondo Village to get flooded with 18 year-olds dropping acid. though psychedelic tourism is happening. I don’t want to be promoting this type of behavior. I was trying to expose it. I don’t want to hurt Bwiti’s cause or this underground movement of trying to heal drug addicts.”
Fackler’s glad for the experience.
“Lovely, Still is very much the film of a child and Sick Birds Die Easy is the film of a rebellious teenager. This film is very much about me growing up and the harsh hit of reality, the fear, not having answers to anything, rising from that dark night. I think it was a very important step for me as a filmmaker. I feel I succeeded making a film that could have been given up on. I’m proud of it.”
As for what’s next, he says, “The art you’re making is directly connected to the searching you’re doing within yourself. As long as I don’t stop searching I will be making art. That’s my way of understanding what I’m searching for.”
Upon discovering there’s a networking group for Nebraskans in Hollywood called the Nebraska Coast Connection it’s not surprising for someone to ask, There are Nebraskans in Hollywood? Yes, and a lot more than you might think. The fact is there have always been Nebraskans in that strange and alluring land of make-believe. A surprising number of natives of this Midwestern state have played and continue playing prominent roles there, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, all the way from the motion picture industry’s start through the advent of television and more recently the dawn of multi-media platforms. The story that follows is my profile of the Nebraska Coast Connection for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Much of my story is based on interviews I did with the Nebraska Coast Connection’s founder and president, Todd Nelson, a Holdrege, Neb. native who’s been doing his thing in Hollwyood for 30 years. His group’s monthly Hollywood Salon has become its signature event. This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows folks to tout their projects and to hear featured speakers, such as Oscar-winner Alexander Payne. I also have insights and impressions about the organization from three of the biggest names from here in Hollywood: filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose new film Nebraska is sure to fare well at the Oscars; writer-producer-director Jon Bokenkamp, whose hit new NBC series The Blacklist has elevated him to the prime time A-list; and former network executive and script writer Lew Hunter, who’s retired from the craziness but knows where the bodies are buried. All speak glowingly about the nurturing nature of the group and how it offers a home away from home environment in what can be otherwise a cold, harsh culture for those working in the industry or aspiring to.
I can speak to the warm hospitality offered by the group based on two recent experiences I had with it. I was there for the Sept. 9 Hollywood Salon featuring Payne and for a Nov. 16 screening of Payne’s Nebraska at Paramount Studios. I was also the featured speaker for its Nov. 11 salon. Todd Nelson was my gracious host each time.
This blog is filled with stories and interviews I’ve done with film figures, famous and not so famous. Much of that work as well as related activity I’m now purusing will feed into an eventual book about Nebraskans in Hollywood, past and present. I am the author of the current book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
Todd Nelson generously provided a set of photos for my story taken by homself and some other NCC stalwarts.
photo credits:TIM WOODWARD, TRAVIS BECK, TODD NELSON, DAVID WILDER
Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon
Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start.
Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital than what you know, is the mission behind the Nebraska Coast Connection. This networking alliance of natives already established in Hollywood or aspiring to be is the brainchild of Todd Nelson, a Holdrege son who’s been in Hollywood since 1984. A former Disney executive, his company Braska Films produces international promos for CBS.
Early in his foray on the coast Nelson was aided by industry veterans and once settled himself he felt an obligation to give back.
His own Hollywood dream extends back to childhood. He made an animated film with his father, created neighborhood theatricals and headlined a magic act, ala home state heroes Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, that netted a recurring spot on a local TV show and gigs around the state.
“I guess I didn’t know any better and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, so I just kept at it,” Nelson says.
As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater and broadcast journalism major he made the then-Sheldon Film Theatre (now the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center) his film school.
“To see classic movies and to meet the filmmakers behind some of them was just a fantastic experience and a real eye opener for me.”
Frustrated by limited filmmaking ops at UNL, he talked his way into using Nebraska Educational Television production facilities to direct a one-act play for the small screen. He also worked as a KETV reporter-photojournalist in the ABC affiliate’s Lincoln bureau.
He was an extra in Terms of Endearment during the feature’s Lincoln shoot.
An internship brought Nelson out to the coast, where he worked behind-the-scenes on a soap and later served as personal assistant to TV-film director Paul Bogart (All in the Family). After five years as a senior project executive at Disney he left to produce and direct the documentary Surviving Friendly Fire.
Nelson formed NCC in 1992. A couple years later he befriended fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, then gearing up to make his first feature, Citizen Ruth. Payne was looking for an L.A. apartment and Nelson leased him a unit in the building he managed and lived in. The neighbors became friends and the Nebraskans in Hollywood community Nelson cultivated grew.
“He’s a terrific guy,” Payne says of Nelson “He is, as they say, good people.”
In 1995 Nelson inaugurated NCC’s signature Hollywood Salon series. He knew he was onto something when the first event drew hundreds. His strong UNL ties brought support from the school’s foundation.
The monthly Salon has met at some iconic locations, including the Hollywood Athletic Club and CBS sound stages. Its home these days is the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif., whose namesake, Nebraskan Harry Culver, attracted the fledgling movie industry to his city in the 1920s. Many Golden Era stars kept residences at the hotel, which purportedly was owned by a succession of Hollywood heavyweights. In this ultimate company town, the hotel is next to Sony Pictures Studios, giving the salon the feel of an insiders’ confab.
The group boasts a mailing list of more than 1,000 and nearly as many anecdotes from those who’ve found fellowship, employment, even love, through its ranks.
Payne likes that NCC affords a kind of Neb. fraternity in Hollywood.
“It’s wonderful and hilarious. It’s hilarious in the way that being from Neb. is hilarious. Maybe people from other states do the same, but I know the Neb. version of how they seek one another out in other cities. I know there’s a Neb. club of some sort in New York City. The state’s members of Congress host a Nebraskans breakfast in D.C.
“Nebraskans feel comfortable with one another outside of Neb. and I am no exception, I enjoy the group, we have a shared sensibility, a shared sense of humor, shared childhood references. And Todd is a forceful personality. He’s the most benevolent, charismatic cult leader one could imagine,” he says with a wink.
According to Nelson, “There is something really unique about Nebraskans. We belong together in this way that no other place does. I have watched other groups come and go trying to duplicate what we do and every group without fail has just fallen apart, and some of them are from the Midwest, so it’s not just the Midwest thing.”
Payne’s far past needing the NCC’s connections but he says, “I’m very happy to continue my participation as an occasional guest speaker.”
Bokenkamp does the same. The Kearney native parked cars when he first got out there. He did have a script but no idea how to get it to anyone that mattered. At Nelson’s urging Bokenkamp entered a screenwriting contest. He won. It got him an agent and eventually jobs writing features (Taking Lives) and even directing a pic (Bad Seed).
Nelson enjoys aiding folks get their starts in the business.
“There’s definitely a thrill watching new people realize their own potential,” he says. “Jamie Ball from Grand Island wanted to be an editor. I’ve given her a chance and she’s working in the big leagues now as a video editor, making a substantial living and finding she really enjoys living her dream. I love being a part of making that happen.
“But I also get the benefit of her good work and it’s enabled me to get home to see my son more often and to take a sick day once in a while. It’s a huge help to have her on my team.”
Against all odds small population Neb’s produced an inordinate number of success stories in film and television, including several legends. The star actors alone run the gamut from Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire to Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift to James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, Nick Nolte and Marg Helgenberger. At least one major studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck, originally hailed from here. As have leading composers. cinematographers, editors, writers and casting directors.
Payne heads the current crop, but he’s hardly alone. Most homegrown talents are not household names but they occupy vital posts in every facet of the biz. For each hopeful who makes it, such as producer-writer Timothy Schlattmann (Dexter) from Nebraska City, many others give up. Having a sanctuary of Nebraskans to turn to smooths the way.
Nelson credits former UNL theater professor Bill Morgan with sparking the concept for NCC.
“He was the one who really put the idea of a Neb. connection in my brain. I would always visit with him when back home for Christmas and he would pull out a stack of holiday cards from all his old students. I’d say to him that I don’t know so-and-so, they were before or after my time. He would write down their contact info and nudge me to get in touch with them. He just thought we all should know each other. And inevitably when I did follow up, they would always welcome me into their lives because we shared Dr. Morgan…even if it was from a different era. That was the seed of the NCC right there.”
Among those UNL grads Nelson looked up was the late Barney Oldfield, a Tecumseh native who was a newspaper reporter and press aide to Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II before becoming a Warner Bros. publicist and independent press agent to such stars as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. In his post-Hollywood years he worked in corporate public relations and became a major philanthropist.
“Barney was an amazing guy. He became a big supporter of the Coast Connection,” Nelson says. “We hosted his 90th birthday party at CBS on the big stage. He regaled us with stories of his old PR days and knowing everybody under the sun.”
Another of the old guard Nelson called on was Guide Rock native Lew Hunter, a former network TV executive and script writer whose 434 Screenwriting class at UCLA became the basis for a popular book he authored. Hunter, who today leads a screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb., offered a model for what became the salon.
“He used to do what he called a Writer’s Block when he still lived in Burbank,” Nelson says. “It was a kind of salon. He’s seen that our salon continues that, so he’s a big supporter.”
Hunter says, “Todd and I often thought and spoke about a similar monthly gathering of Nebraskans and he pulled it off. It has been a wonderful spin and he really is the father of it all.”
But what really compelled Nelson to form NCC was the stark reality that even though hundreds of Nebraskans worked in Hollywood, few knew each other and there was no formal apparatus to link them.
“I’d been working in Hollywood already 10 years and meeting a lot of Nebraskans and nobody seemed to know each other. We needed to have access to each other.”
Thus, the all-volunteer Nebraska Coast Connection was born.
“People teasingly called it the Nebraska Mafia, but it was kind of like that – we could take care of each other.”
Variety managing editor Kirsten Wilder, yet another Neb. native in Hollywood, has a warm feeling for the group and marvels at its founder’s persistence.
“The NCC is near and dear to my heart. The reason the NCC is so successful is because of Todd Nelson’s staggering devotion to keep the group alive and thriving.”
Nelson defers credit to the natural conviviality of Nebraskans.
“You get these people that come out here from Neb. and it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the state, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a direct contact with someone else, the fact that you are from Neb. is an instant welcome. It’s not entirely universal. I met Nick Nolte at the Golden Globes one year and I told him about our group and I said we’d love to have him come and talk to us sometime and he said, ‘Why would I want to hangout with a bunch of Nebraskans? I got away from that place.’ That’s a rarity, once in a while you run into it, but most of the time we find that everybody just connects instantly.”
A tribute screening of silent screen great Harold Lloyd’s work brought inspired NCC members to don replicas of the icon’s signature horned-rim glasses
Nelson says that in what can be a cold, rootless town NCC provides “a safe haven” that comes with the shared identity and experience of being among other Nebraskans .
“We call it Home Sweet Home in Hollywood and it has that quality to it. You need a home base I think if you’re going to do this kind of hard work of always having to put yourself out there and come up against the sharks of the world. I don’t think growing up in Neb. especially prepares you for how hard it will be to actually make it while you ply your trade and build your career. Hollywood just isn’t very nurturing. You can really use a community out here to help you get your bearings and give you a leg up. Or at least some friendly faces to be yourself with as you make your way.”
Bokenkamp admires what Nelson and the group provide.
“His love for Neb. runs deep, and he’s found a way to channel that love into a really positive networking group with the Nebraska Coast Connection. NCC is a warm, energetic and creative environment. Todd just wants to see people succeed.
“Thing is, in a land as strange as Hollywood, it’s just nice to have a place to go now and then that feels like home. NCC is that for a lot of Nebraskans.”
Payne says he can appreciate how NCC makes negotiating Hollywood less lonely and frightening for newcomers.
“L.A. is such a scary place to approach when you’re young and want a career in film or television. Everyone is telling you you can’t make it, perhaps you’re even telling yourself that, but you’ve giving it a try anyway. Add to that the fact you’re from Neb. and have no connections. Well, it turns out there is an organization that welcomes you and has people in exactly the same boat there to commiserate with. It’s a wonderful, caring organization.”
Nelson says without the NCC it’s easy for some to give up their dream.
“I’ve seen many people go back home after a few years of waiting for their break and not getting very far. Pressure from parents and friends is part of it. People in Neb. don’t really get how long and hard these careers can be to get started. There’s no distinct ladder to climb, no road map, lots of horror stories and kids here can run out of money or run out of steam. That’s when a ‘safe’ job back home near the folks looks more and more attractive.
“I’ve had many parents tell me they wouldn’t let their kid try it in Hollywood without the safety net we give them.”
Nelson says NCC offers a way to make foot-in-the-door contacts that parlay a kind of pay-it-forward, Neb.-centric nepotism.
“I know the NCC works because I see it over and over. People are constantly making job contacts, finding support, getting roommates, attending each other’s performances, hiring actors and crew for their films. It is going on all the time at every Salon. Hopefully it will happen even more with the interactivity built into the new website. Our goal is to have a kind of virtual salon to help everyone stay in touch with each other in between salons.”
“Even after some folks reach some level of success they come back often and say it gives them a friendly home base.”
Real jobs result from NCC hook-ups.
“As a producer who has hired or recommended over a dozen people to work at CBS-TV over the years, including a young Jon Bokenkamp, I know this group to be a huge resource of great talent. I don’t ever need to go elsewhere to find the best people,” Nelson says.
Nelson’s quick to point out he’s not alone in his home state loyalty.
“Jeopardy executive producer Harry Friedman is from Omaha and he is famous for hiring Nebraskans on his shows. Many others out here from Neb. recommend Nebraskans first. Why wouldn’t they? It always makes sense to hire people you know, or know where they came from, and Nebraskans are almost universally loved for their work ethic, responsibility under pressure and humble ‘get it done’ spirit.”
Nelson says he’s pleased the NCC, which rated a fall L.A. Times feature article, has made it this far.
“I don’t think if you told me 21 years ago that we’d still be going this strong I would have believed it. In fact, it’s kind of moving into some new levels. For example, with the Nebraska screening at Paramount I was able to reach out to all these folks who’ve been salon guests and they were very excited about it.”
Besides Nelson and Payne, attendees at the screening included Bokenkamp, Chris Klein, actor Nicholas D’Agosto and actress turned-mystery author Harley Jane Kozak.
Celebrating success stories like these is part of the deal. But Nelson says the heart of the NCC “will always be a group focused first on the kid that’s been out here for a week, that drove out in his dad’s car full of stuff, is staying on somebody’s couch and has 500 bucks to his name. I mean, that’s really what we’re here to do and that’s going on every month at the salon – somebody showing up for the first time who’s in that circumstance. That’s the way it works.”
Cinematographer Greg Hadwick showed up like that out of Lincoln, recalls Nelson. “I think he drove all night to make it to the salon.” No sooner did Hadwick arrive then he learned Nelson and his then-very pregnant wife were due to move that weekend and he volunteered to help.
“He was just a trooper,” says Nelson. “He rented a truck and stayed late. He was such an incredibly hard worker. He didn’t ask for any money and he wouldn’t take any. The next salon I told the group what he did and somebody who was looking for an assistant hired Greg based on my recommendation, and that kid has gone on to work his butt off in Hollywood, He just showed up, open, ready to jump in. He’s now started his own production company and brought guys out here from his hometown in Neb., so he’s kind of doing his own giving back.”
Nelson says he can usually spot who has what it takes.
“I’ve seen a lot of those kids who try to make it for awhile who don’t stick. Then there’s the ones that right away I know, Oh, yeah, they’re going to do it. There is a certain confidence, I don’t think you can make it in this town without that confidence. But there’s so much more to it than that. In so many ways it’s about, Do they have something to give? There’s a lot of people that come out here and they think, Well, what can I get out of this? Almost without exception the ones who make it are the ones who want to give back.
“I’ll back these people a hundred percent and help them on their way because that’s what you do here, that’s what it’s about.”
The reciprocity continues. Nelson and Payne attended the dedication of Bokenkamp’s restored World Theatre in his hometown of Kearney. Nelson says, “It was a great celebration of Jon’s good work.” Nelson also organized a group to attend a screening of Bokenkanp’s documentary about the waning days of drive-in theaters, After Sunset. Bokenkamp returned the favor speaking at the October salon. The home state contingent turned out in force for the Paramount Nebraska screening. And so it goes with the Coast Connection.
“There’s never been a time when it’s felt like a one-way street,” says Nelson. “It always comes back.”
Follow the Coast Connection on Facebook or at http://hollywoodsalon.org/.