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Talking Screenwriting with Hollywood Heavyweight Hawk Ostby, The Omaha Film Festival Panelist Counts ‘Children of Men’ and ‘Iron Man’ Among His Credits


Another indication the Omaha Film Festival has arrived as a major regional film event is the high caliber of special guests and panelists it continues to attract.   The 2012 version counts actress-writer-director Jaime King (see story on this blog) and screenwriter Hawk Ostby, the subject of this story, among its featured attractions alongside the films themselves.  My Q&A with Ostby, who with Mark Fergus has written Children of Men and Iron Man, finds him talking about craft, of course, but also about the persistence it takes to make it as a screenwriter.  Go to http://www.omahafilmfestival.org for details about the March 7-11 festival and the appearances by King, Ostby, and others.  This blog, by the way, is full of more film stories that might interest you.

Hawk Ostby

 

 

Talking Screenwriting with Hollywood Heavyweight Hawk Ostby, The Omaha Film Festival Panelist Counts ‘Children of Men’ and ‘Iron Man‘ Among His Credits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Hawk Ostby, one half of the scriptwriting team of Children of Men and Iron Man, will provide an insider’s take on the screenwriting trade at the Omaha Film Festival’s Filmmaking Conference.

Speaking by phone from his Vermont home, Ostby says a big part of making it in the industry is “perseverance and discipline.”

“You really get tested when you start off,” says Ostby, whose writing partner is Mark Fergus. “I was fortunate in that I knew somebody who had a foot in the door, and he said, ‘Look, if you really concentrate for three to five years you’ll be doing what you want to do,’ and I sort of had that tattooed behind my eyelids.

“Three to five years can be a really long time when you’re watching your friends go on to their careers, doing really well, and you’re still tapping away in a sweaty little band box, but then one day it happens. It doesn’t seem so weird or outlandish when somebody calls and says, ‘Hey, we read something of yours and we really like it and we want to try and make it.’ I think in your own mind you fantasize about that moment so often and then when it finally happens it feels right because you’ve done the work.”

Mark Fergus

 

 

Knowing your craft is essential.

“I just was so enamored with the idea of trying to make a living by writing, and I realized I enjoyed it so that it was going to be with me for the rest of my life anyway, so why not knuckle down and really try to learn what it is, what is a story?”

Hollywood seems unattainable but he says he and Fergus prove it’s not.

“Look, I’m not a genius by any means. I just love stories and I stuck with it. It was more like play, and I think if it’s that for you then you’ve got a shot. If you’re trying to get rich or famous, you can do it a lot easier than trying to make it in this business. It’s not really what it’s about. To learn storytelling and all those things it’s a long apprenticeship, at least it was for me. I know there are people who are way more natural who write two scripts and they’re smash hits and they go on to have long careers, but that certainly wasn’t my story, and not Mark’s.”

Collaborators 15 years, Ostby and Fergus play to their respective strengths.

“Mark is very analytical. He can look at a script and say right away, ‘Ah, page 7 is where it goes wrong.’ He’s very clever at those things and I’m not. I’m more instinctual. I’m not sure what’s wrong. I have to take it home to the cave and sort of chew on it. We don’t sit in the same room and fire dialogue back and forth, it’s more of a two-headed thing. We discuss at length the story and how to lay it down, and then Mark will go in, write the outline, sculpt it down to its essence, and then I will take that and do the first draft, and use that as guide for where we want to go. That draft is often written very maniacally and quickly. I don’t stop to edit myself. We used to write and edit at the same time and what happened was we never got the flow of it.”

Children of Men 

 

 

After each makes another pass, he says, “usually we’re left with a couple things he’s holding onto and I’m holding onto and we just sort of argue those out and whoever has the best argument or is able to convince the other is what we go with. Sometimes we find a better solution spitballing things.”

The pair have adapted Philip K.Dick (A Scanner Darkly), a comic book (Iron Man) and an animated film (the forthcoming Akira) but their adaptation of the P.D. James novel Children of Men may have been most instructive.

“If there’s one thing we learned, especially on Children of Men, you can’t always follow the book. It’s just a totally different experience. But if you can capture the feeling of the book then that’s what you’re really aiming for. The book just wasn’t working as a film. What broke it for us is when we came up with this idea that it’s really Casablanca set in a dystopian future, complete with a spiritually bankrupt protagonist who has nothing to live for and then finds something and sacrifices    himself for something greater.”

The writers are trying to get a television series and two original feature scripts off the ground this year. One feature puts a twist on the heist genre and the other dramatizes a manhunt in the wilderness.

For details on Ostby’s OFF Filmmaking Conference panels, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

Iron Man 

Screenwriting Adventures of Nebraska Native Jon Bokenkamp, Author of the Scripts ‘Perfect Stranger’ and ‘Taking Lives’

November 28, 2011 7 comments

If you’re a follower of this blog, then you know I like writing about Nebraskans working in the film industry.  If you’re a newbie here, consider yourself warned.  The subject of the story that follows, Jon Bokenkamp, is a feature screenwriter with some major cerdits behind him.  He’s also directed one feature.  Lately, Bokenkamp’s taken a step back from his Hollwyood merry-go-round to return to his hometown, Kearney, Neb., where he is active in restoring the World Theatre.  Alexander Payne is probably the biggest name from the state doing his thing in film and you’ll find no shortage of stories by me about the filmmaker on this site.  I’ve written extensively about Payne and his work and will continue doing so.  But you’ll also find many stories I’ve done about lesser known but no less interesting figures from this place doing noteworthy things in cinema and television, including: Nik Fackler, Joan Micklin Silver, Yolonda Ross, Gabrielle Union, John Beasley, Gail Levin, Charles Fairbanks, Nicholas D’Agosto, Monty Ross, Vince Alston, Swoosie Kurtz.  Then there are individuals like Lew Hunter who worked as a producer and writer in Hollywood before becoming a screenwriting guru through his UCLA course and book. Screenwriting 434, and workshops.   There’s Click Westin, who churned out scripts for many a forgotten early TV dramatic series and doctored several feature scripts and whose lone produced feature screenplay, Nashville Rebel, starred  Waylon Jennings in the itle role.  There’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who’s a transplant here.  Let’s not forget Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill, the subject of a profile soon to be added here.   Future posts will also profile Peter Fonda and Jane Fonda.  I would love to get around one day to interviewing-profiling Nick Nolte.  The man profiled in this post, Jon Bokenkamp, is not a household name but you’ve likely seen some of his handiwork on screen (Taking Lives or Perfect Stranger).

Jon Bokenkamp, ©photo Kearney Hub

 

 

Screenwriting Adventures of Nebraska Native Jon Bokenkamp , Author of the Scripts ‘Perfect Stranger’ and ‘Taking Lives’

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

As screenwriter of the Angelina Jolie-Ethan Hawke thriller Taking Lives and with a story-by credit on the new Halle Berry-Bruce Willis suspenser Perfect Stranger, Nebraskan Jon Bokenkamp has defied the odds in Tinsletown.

Besides penning scripts that stars attach themselves to, as both Berry and Diane Lane did with his screenplay Need, a project now going forward with Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts, he’s directed one feature, Bad Seed, from his own original script Preston Tylk. He’s also directed a feature length documentary (After Sunset) on that faded American movie tradition, the drive-in.

Opening this weekend, Stranger is based on an original story by Bokenkamp. The plot centers on Roe (Berry), a crusading investigative reporter who enters the cyber world of hookups to try and ID the killer of her best friend. A man she develops ambiguous feelings for, Harrison (Willis), may be the killer.

 

 

Perfect Stranger

 

 

Bokenkamp’s story originally captured the interest of Julia Roberts before she passed, perhaps he speculates because the material was “too dark for America’s Sweetheart.” Then, producers strayed from his version to, as he put it, “shop around” for writers to take it in “a new direction.”

Two new scribes took a stab at it before Todd Komarnicki, who has screenplay credit, finished the final version, including a new ending that reveals an entirely different killer. Berry signed on as the lead and James Foley as director.

The new ending was only added once shooting began. Such changes are par for the course in Hollywood. “These things just evolve so many times,” Bokenkamp said. “It’s only two pages,” he said, “but my God they change the whole color of everything that happened before.” He settled for story-by credit. As the original author, he had a case to “arbitrate” for a screenplay-by credit from the Writer’s Guild, but opted not to make waves.

Besides, he said, “it’s really a muddy way the credits are decided. It’s a really strange process.” So he swallowed his pride. “This was real simple. There was no hollering, which is unusual,” he said.

Another reason he didn’t fight is he felt ambivalent about the film, whose shooting script he’s read. “It’s a good twist, but I don’t feel like it reflects the story I wanted to tell. It ends up becoming a different movie.” The twist, he said, “is not what it’s about.” Despite it all, he said, “I believe in the movie.”

 His documentary about drive-ins, After Sunset
He recently led effort to restore the World Theatre in Kearney

 

 

Bokenkamp’s odyssey reprised what happened with Taking Lives and an old project he worked on years ago called WW3.COM (World War III.com), which “has finally risen from the ashes,” he said, “and evolved into Live Free or Die Hard, which is basically Die Hard 4.” His work on it is uncredited.

“It’s funny, I’m finding I’m the guy that generates the idea — I’m not the closer,” he said. “I’m not the guy who can come in with the punch lines and the big-movie-trailer, see-you-in-hell moments. But I’m the guy who gets the bones of it there.”

He may or may not see to fruition his new script, Night and Day, You Are the One, what he calls “kind of a Jacob’s Ladder love story.” He’s developing it for writer-producer Ehren Kruger (The Ring) at Universal and writer-director Mark Pellington (Mothman Prophecies). It’s proof he’s still in the game.

Not so long ago Bokenkamp was just another wannabe leaving behind a stolid life in his hometown of Kearney, Neb. to try his luck in loopy L.A. He was 20 and cheeky enough to be an aspiring director despite only a few Super VHS shorts and two undistinguished years at then-Kearney State College on his resume.

Without knowing a soul, he arrived out West in 1993. This was before Alexander Payne hit it big. Bokenkamp attended USC film school, a feeder for the industry.

He paid his dues in classic starving-Hollywood-hopeful-makes-good fashion. He wrote by day while he parked cars on the Universal lot and waited tables at night. He didn’t have a car for a time. He felt the frustration of being right outside the golden gates, yet no nearer to getting inside them than when back in Kearney.

Adrift in a sun-drenched town that turns a cold shoulder to anyone not remotely a Player, he reached out to the few made-Nebraskans he could find, including Lew Hunter, the UCLA screenwriting guru from Superior, Neb.

His radar next led him to Dan Mirvish, the mercurial filmmaker who finagled an editing suite at Paramount to cut his Omaha, the movie. Bokenkamp did an assistant editor internship on it, working on vintage upright moviolas. It was his first time on a lot other than as a valet.

When Bokenkamp realized Hollywood revolves around the desperate, Byzantine hunt for bankable material, he began writing. He entered a Fade In magazine contest for thriller scripts. Long story short, he won. He got an agent and lawyer and a job doing rewrites for William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist).

“I’ll never forget showing up to his office at Paramount,” Bokenkamp said. “His assistant had candles burning and the lights were all turned down like there was some kind of seance going on. There were dried flowers hanging everywhere, old pictures on the walls. The place was like a cave. I was really young and Friedkin is a daunting guy. I mean, he won the fucking Oscar…

“We originally met because he was interested in directing my script Preston Tylk. But as the budget got smaller and smaller I started to think to myself — ‘Why am I not directing this?” So I took the script back and eventually made the movie myself, but Friedkin liked my writing and hired me to rewrite Blood Acre…a really smart horror film…I remember we had one awful notes session where he just screamed and screamed about how terrible the script was. I did the two passes…in my contract and they never asked me back. I bumped into him a few years later and I’m not sure he even remembered me, but it was a real lesson in Hollywood.

“Since then, I’ve sort of compared ‘assignment writing’ to being a plumber, meaning, I might get hired to fix the toilet, but if I don’t do my job quickly and really well, they’re going to tell me to get out of the bathroom because they’ve called another plumber. Maybe that guy screws up and they have to call me back. That’s happened. But at the end of the day it’s a job.”

 Taking Lives

 

 

His first feature directing gig, Bad Seed, is a 2000 guy-on-the-run-hires-over-the-hill-private-eye flick starring Luke Wilson and Dennis Farina. The straight-to-video pic didn’t set the world on fire, but it did gain him a rep for thrillers, and you’re nothing in Hollywood if they can’t label you.

“From Bad Seed my niche kind of became small, dark thrillers, told from a single point of view, later from a female perspective,” he said. “I love detective movies. Klute is a favorite of mine. So you kind of build a niche as one thing that can make you a commodity. But I also think before that you have to have something you want to say, which sounds really cliche, but you really have to…

“I also think there’s really something to be said for being collaborative and easy to work with and just not being a prick,” he said. “There’s all these egos in the business and I think one of the things that’s helped me is I really feel I’m pretty easy to get along with. If you want me to try an idea, I’ll try it.”

Not surprisingly, the first-time director was frustrated by the “compromises” Warner Bros. forced on him. “It was a better script than a movie simply because of my inexperience as a director,” he said, “but I learned more those 30 days directing than I did in two years at USC.”

 

 

 Preston Tylk, aka Bad Seed

 

 

Even if he could direct on his own terms, he’s not sure it’s a good fit. “I would like to direct again,” he said, “but the lifestyle of it doesn’t match the lifestyle I like. I like the lifestyle of writing. It suits my family as well.” He’s married to his high school sweetheart, Kathy. They have two children. The couple gets back often to Nebraska to visit family and friends, staying summers at a cabin they keep near Johnson Lake. “I like sitting in a room writing, going and getting my Subway sandwich and coming back and getting it right on the page as opposed to being up 24 hours a day going crazy, pulling your hair out, wondering, ‘Why isn’t it raining?”

Bad Seed was to have reeked with a rain-soaked film noir ambience but Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and Warners couldn’t wait, so he scrapped the mood to make his days. Such are the concessions first-time directors make.

Since Bad Seed his scripts have mostly focused on kick-ass women.

“The strong female-driven element is something I gravitate to,” he said. “Female-driven movies feel smarter to me and it’s just a way to be different. You get a little more latitude with a female because she’s forced to stand up against the woman-in-the-boys-club type thing. It immediately puts us on her side…in her shoes.”

He said the input of his wife Kathy, a former school teacher, influences his interest in crafting formidable women characters.

“My wife can take a lot of credit for it. I don’t have a writing partner, so at the end of the day when I’m laying in bed staring at the ceiling, still writing, my wife is the one I talk to about it.”

He said Kathy’s been “completely supportive of his career,” even when he struggled those early years and even now when he freaks out between jobs.

“I always feel like I’m going from job to job,” he said. “That’s what’s exciting about it — going from one story to another, learning about something new. That’s the insecurity of it, too. You’re never quite sure where the next paycheck is coming from. And there’s not a 401K plan. The only difference (now) is that the paychecks have become a little bigger and my car is paid for.”

He said making it as a writer requires “an under appreciated scrapper kind of mentality.” He admits he’s not immune to fits of envy or pity. “At times I go, ‘Why am I not the guy writing Jurassic Park IV?’ But that kind of keeping-up-with-the-Jones mentality is something that terrifies me. I can’t put myself there. I just want to do stories that are close to my gut…I want to do the movies that are going to be remembered. I’m not saying any of mine are, but you gotta strive for that or otherwise I think you’re done.”

“One thing that scares me is if it stops. If suddenly people don’t want to work with me for some reason. I don’t know what I would do. I have a hard time imagining anything else. And I’m sure I always will write, whether I’m getting paid for it or not. Believe me, it’s not about the money, because there are a lot easier ways to go make lots more money. It’s just something I kind of have to do….I love to do.”

Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne

November 20, 2011 11 comments

Jim Taylor

 

 

Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.

Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.

Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).

With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the Paris, I Love You omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.

Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.

Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.

”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”

For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.

”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”

Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.

“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”

He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.

Their process assumes new colors when hired for a script-doctor job (Meet the ParentsJurassic Park III), the latest being I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.

Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne with their Sideways Oscars

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‘Lovely, Still,’ that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity, Earns Writer-Director Nik Fackler an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best First Screenplay

December 3, 2010 2 comments

"Lovely, Still" reshoot

Image by 1031 via Flickr

I am reposting this article I wrote about Lovely, Still, the sweet and searing debut feature film by Nik Fackler, because he has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. The film stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in roles that allow them to showcase their full range humanity, a rare thing for senior actors in movies these days. If the movie is playing near you, take a chance on this low budget indie that actually has the look of a big budget pic.  If you didn’t have a chance to see it in a theater, you can look for it on DVD.  As deserving as the film is for Oscar consideration, particularly the performances by Landau and Burstyn, it’s unlikely to break through due to its limited release.  The following article I wrote for the New Horizons comes close to giving away the film’s hook, but even if you should hazard to guess it the film will still work for you and may in fact work on a deeper level.  That was my experience after knowing the hook and still being swept away by the story.  It happened both times I’ve seen it.  My other Lovely, Still and Nik Fackler stories can be found on this blog.

NOTE: The Independent Spirit Awards show is broadcast February 26 on cable’s Independent Film Channel (IFC).  That is the night before the Oscars, which is fitting because the Spirit Awards and IFC are a definite alternative to the high gloss, big budget Hollywood apparatus.  I will be watching and rooting for Nik.

‘Lovely, Still,’ that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity, Earns Writer-Director Nik Fackler an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best First Screenplay

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons

Hollywood legends seldom come to Omaha. It’s even rarer when they arrive to work on a film. Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney did for the 1938 MGM classic Boys Town. Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates crashed for Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.

More recently, Oscar-winning actors Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn spent two months here, during late 2007, as the leads in the indie movie Lovely, Still, the debut feature of hometown boy Nik Fackler.

True, George Clooney shot some scenes for Up in the Air in town, but his stay here was so brief and the Omaha footage so minimal that it doesn’t really count.

Lovely, Still on the other hand was, like Boys and Schmidt before it, a prolonged and deep immersion experience for the actors and the crew in this community. Landau and Burstyn grew close to Fackler, who’s young enough to be their grandson, and they remain close to him three years later.

Since the production practically unfolded in Fackler’s backyard, the actors got to meet his family and friends, some of whom were on the set, and to visit his haunts, including the Millard eatery his family owns and operates, Shirley’s Diner. It’s where, until recently, Nick worked. It’s also where he carefully studied patrons, including an older man who became the model for Lovely protagonist Robert Malone (Landau).

Then there’s the fact the film drips Omaha with scenes in the Old Market, Gene Leahy Mall, Memorial Park and Country Club neighborhood. Omaha’s never looked this good on the big screen before.

After select showings in 2008 and 2009, including a one-week run in Omaha last year, Lovely is finally getting a general release this fall in dozens of theaters from coast to coast. It opened September 24 at the Midtown Cinema and Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha and other cities across the U.S..

For Fackler, 26, it’s the culmination of a long road that goes back to when he first wrote the script, at 17. Over time, the script evolved and once Landau and Burstyn came on board and provided their input, it changed some more. Finally seeing his “baby” reach this point means much to Fackler.

“I’ve been very emotional,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to be emotional but I have been. It’s been nine years of persistence and positivity and not giving up. It’s always been this thing in my life, Lovely, Still, that’s never gone away, and now I’m going to let it go away, and it feels good because I’m ready to let it go…

“I wanted it to come out a couple years ago, and it was delayed. Now it’s finally coming out and I feel sort of a distance from it, but at the same time it’s good I feel that because there’s nothing a bad review can say that won’t make me proud of the accomplishment. It just feels good to know that it’s out there.”

 

 

Martin Landau and Nik Fackler

 

The film, which has received mixed critical notices, does well with audiences.

“People that pick up on the emotions and the feelings in the film seem to really be attached to it and love it,” Fackler said. “It’s either people really get it and get something emotional from it or people don’t get it.”

The PG movie’s slated to continue opening at different theaters throughout October before going to DVD November 9.

Lovely had its requisite one-week screenings in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. While many feel Landau and Burstyn deliver Oscar-caliber performances, the odds are stacked against them because of the film’s limited release and non-existent budget for waging an awards campaign.

Rare for features these days, the film focuses on two characters in their late 70s-early 80s. Rare for films of any era it stars two actors who are actually the advanced ages of the roles they essay. The film also approaches a sensitive topic in a way that perhaps has never been seen before.

Now for a spoiler alert. The film hinges on a plot twist that, once revealed, casts a different meaning on events. If you don’t want to know the back story, then stop reading here. If you don’t care, then continue.

Without getting specific, this story of two older people falling in love is about a family coping with Alzheimer’s Disease. Unlike perhaps a Lifetime or Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Lovely never mentions the disease by name. Instead, its effects are presented through the prism of a fairy tale, complete with exhilarating and terrifying moments, before a dose of stark reality, and an ending that’s pure wistful nostalgia.

What makes the film stand out from most others with a senior storyline is that

Landau and Burstyn create multidimensional rather than one-note characters. The script requires they play a wide range of emotional and psychological colors and these two consummate actors are up to fully realizing these complex behaviors.

Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Ed Wood, Landau returned to Omaha last year to promote Lovely. He said he was drawn to the material by its depth and nuance and by the opportunity to play an authentic character his own age.

“I get a lot of scripts where the old guy is the crusty curmudgeon who sits at the table and grunts a lot, and that’s that, because we kind of dismiss (old) age. So, the chance of exploring this many sides of a man, and the love story aspect of the older couple, presented an interesting arc.”

The actor marvels at how someone as young as Fackler could tap so truthfully the fears and desires of characters much older than himself. During an interview at North Sea Films, the Omaha production company of co-producer Dana Altman, Landau spoke about the pic, playing opposite his friend Ellen Burstyn, and working with wunderkind writer-director Fackler, whom he affectionately calls “the kid.”

 

 

Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau from Lovely, Still

 

Before there was even a chance of landing an actor of Landau’s stature producers had to get the script in his hands through the golden pipeline of movers and shakers who make feature film projects possible. Fackler’s script long ago earned him a William Morris agent — the gold standard for artists/entertainers.

Landau explained, “Nick sent it to William Morris, who has an independent feature division, who sent to my agent, who sent it to me. I liked it a lot, but I felt there were bumps in it at the time. Some scenes that shouldn’t be in the first act, some scenes that needed to be in the first act. What the second act was I had no idea.” Enough substance was there that Landau expressed interest. It was only then he learned the unlikely author was a not-long-out-of-high school 20-something whose directing experience consisted of low budget shorts and music videos.

“I said, “I want to meet with the writer, figuring somebody maybe close to my age. I said, ‘How old is he?, and they said 22 (at the time). A few minutes later my eyes were still crossed and I said, ‘Wow. I mean, how does a 22 year-old write an older couple love story with this texture?’”

The venerable, much honored actor took a lunch meeting with the Generation Y upstart at an L.A. cafe. Each was a bit wary whether he could work with the other. Landau recalled that initial meeting, which he used to gauge how open Fackler was to accepting notes to inform rewrites:

“I basically said, ‘This is a terrific script, but it’s bumpy. If you’re willing to do this with me, I’ll do the movie,’ and Nick said, ‘OK.’Well, he did a rewrite on the basis of what we talked about, For two months we talked on the phone, several times a week, five or six pages at a time” to smooth out those bumps.

Landau and Fackler devised a wish list of actresses to play Mary. Burstyn, the Best Actress Oscar-winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was their first choice. On Landau’s advice Fackler waited until the rewrite was complete before sending the script to her. When she received it, she fell in love with the property, too.

Even as much as he and Burstyn loved the storyl, signing on with such an inexperienced director was a risk “It was a leap of faith working with a kid,” said Landau, “but he’s talented and adventurous and imaginative and willing to listen. He reminds me of Tim Burton. Less dark, maybe a little more buoyant.”

In the end, the material won over the veterans.

“Actors like me and Ellen are looking for scripts that have some literary value. Good dialogue today is rare. Dialogue is what a character is willing to reveal to another character. The 90 percent he isn’t is what I do for a living. It’s harder and harder to get a character-driven movie made by a studio or independents and it’s harder to get theaters to take them, so many go directly to DVD, if they’re lucky. Others fall through the cracks and are never seen, and that’s going to happen more.”

The suits calling the shots in Hollywood don’t impress Landau.

“Half the guys running the studios, some of them my ex-agents, haven’t read anything longer than a deal memorandum. And they’re deciding what literary piece should be made as a film?”

He likes that this movie is aimed for his own underserved demographic.

“A lot of older people are starved for movies,” he said. “They’re not interested in fireballs or car chases or guys climbing up the sides of buildings.”

He attended a Las Vegas screening of the pic before a huge AARP member crowd and, he said, spectators “were enwrapped with this movie. It talked to them. I mean, they not just liked it, it’s made for them. There’s a huge audience out there for it.”

Instead of an age gap they couldn’t overcome, Landau and Fackler discovered they were kindred spirits. Before he got into acting, Landau studied music and art, and worked as an editorial cartoonist. He draws and paints, as well as writes, to this day. Besides writing and directing films, Fackler is a musician and a visual artist.

“I feel that Martin and I are very similar and we get along really well,” said Fackler, who added the two of them still talk frequently. He described their relationship as a mutually “inspired” one in which each feeds the other creatively and spiritually. Fackler also feels a kinship with Burstyn. He said he gets away to a cabin she has in order to write.

 

 

Nicholas Fackler Director Nicholas Fackler arrives at the ""Lovely, Still" premiere during 2008 Toronto International Film Festival held at the The Empire Lounge on Septmeber 7, 2008 in Toronto, Canada.
Nik Fackler
On most any film there comes a time when the director must fight for his or her vision, and Fackler found an ally in Landau.

“One of the main things Martin repeated to me over and over again was, ‘This is your movie.’ He made sure that rang in my ears,” said Fackler, “just to make sure I stayed strong when I came up against fights and arguments with people that wanted the film to be something I didn’t want it to be, and much love to him for doing that. Those words continue to ring in my ear in his voice to this day, and I’m sure for the rest of my career.”

Landau and Burstyn brought their considerable experience to bear helping the first-time feature director figure out the ropes, but ultimately deferred to him.

“All good films are collaborations,” said Landau. “A good director, and I’ve worked with a lot of them (Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Coppola, Allen), doesn’t direct, he creates a playground in which you play. Ninety percent of directing is casting the right people. If you cast the right people what happens in that playground is stuff you couldn’t conceive of beforehand.”

“It was collaborative,” said Fackler. “We were a team, it was artists working together the same way a group of musicians make a band. We became friends and then after we became friends we respected each other’s opinions.”

As for working with Burstyn, Landau said, “it’s a joy. She’s a terrific actress.” He compared doing a scene with her to having a good tennis partner. “If you’re playing pretty well and you’ve got a good partner you play better. You don’t know exactly where they’re going to place the ball, and it’s that element when Ellen and I work together we have. It’s never exactly the same. She’ll throw the ball and I’ll get to the ball, toss it back to her, so that it’s alive. I won’t call them accidents but they are sin a way, which is what living is, and that element of unpredictability and ultimately inevitability, is what good acting is about. That stuff is what I care about.”

Not every review of the film has been positive. Some critics seem uneasy with or dismissive of its emotionalism, complaining it’s too cloying or precious. That emotional journey of a man who believes he’s falling in love for the first time, only to find out the bitter truth of what he’s lost, is what appealed to Landau.

“The interesting thing about this movie is that if you took away the last act you could cast 15 year-olds in it and not change a lot,” said Landau. “Nick (first) wrote it when he was 17. It’s basically a teenage romance. There’s something simplistic and sweet about these two people who want to be together. Robert’s naive, he’s a kid on his first date. That’s why Nik was able to write it — because he was going through stuff, his first love. The primal feelings people have at 15 or 50 or 80 are pretty much the same.”

Landau is proud to be associated with the film for many reasons, among them its effective portrayal of memory loss.

“I absolutely believe in this film. When I did Ed Wood I felt that way. But this one because I know so many people who’ve had memory problems or are having memory problems. My brother-in-law had Alzheimer’s. A lot of close peers of mine. The Alzheimer’s Association is very behind this movie because it rings true…”

Related Articles

Dissecting Jesse James

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Jesse James, famous American outlaw.

Image via Wikipedia

If you are like me and you admire the film adaptation of Ron Hansen‘s masterful novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, then welcome to a decided minority.  I know why most folks have problems with the movie.  It’s unusually long, slow, and deliberate.  Its two main characters are enigmatic, inscrutable, unlikable figures. There is a sinister pall of death around all the proceedings.  The work is uncompromising in taking its meandering, even indulgent path to the end, one that the very title of the film signals.  And while I would not choose this film among the few I want with me on a desert island, I do believe it is as masterful in its own medium as Hansen’s novel is in literature.  I think the film’s reputation will grow over time.  Of course, you may be among the vast majority who haven’t seen the film, as it was an abysmal box office failure.  I definitely recommend it.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader,com) appeared in advance of a screening of the film that concluded with a Q & A with Hansen, who closely consulted the film’s writer-director, Andrew Dominik.  Hansen loved how faithful Dominik was to his novel and the author was invited to be on the set for much of the shoot.  You can find more pieces by me about Hansen on this blog.  If you haven’t read his James novel, do so, because it is a superb piece of literature that, unlike the film, moves quickly.  In fact, I recommend anything by Hansen, who is one of America’s finest writers.

Dissecting Jesse James

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is so faithful to the Ron Hansen novel the author might well have adapted it himself. Filmmaker Andrew Dominick generously included the Omaha native in the process. Hansen read script drafts, offered notes, observed scenes and answered dialogue questions from stars Brad Pitt (James) and Casey Affleck (Ford).

Dominick’s fidelity to Hansen’s work resulted in as literal a translation of a full-length novel as film constraints allow. Hansen feels deep ownership in the movie. On August 23 he will take questions from Omaha novelist Timothy Schaffert and audience members following a 1 p.m. screening of James at Film Streams. The program previews the Sept. 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest Schaffert directs.

The cinematic quality of Hansen’s novels has long attracted filmmakers. James marked the third and most successful screen adaptation of his work. As “a visual writer more concerned with scene than voice,” he said, “the images come first,” not the words. “I try to make it as tangible as possible for the reader, and that’s why I employ simile and metaphor. If you just rely on the sentences to take care of themselves, it becomes kind of an amorphous, abstract kind of writing.”

“As I developed my interest in film I saw how close-ups and strange angles could actually create interest for the reader,” he said, “so I think there’s more variation of focal length and angle in my writing now than there used to be. For example, two characters in a room just staring at each other and talking is not as interesting as if the camera is on one of their lips and then sees the glint in the other one’s eye. I think that actually gives energy to the fiction writing.

“Like in Mariette in Ecstasy (the author’s 1992 novel), there’s one moment where a young nun is caring for Mariette after her first trance-like stigmatic experience, and I point out what her lips look like. When she puts Mariette’s hand into the water I describe how the blood kind of twists out of her wound into the water and pinks the water. Those things are essentially close-ups. I talk about the sound of her breathing so intricately you understand the camera’s very close to her mouth to hear that. A lot of times I do an overall picture of the landscape but then hone in, on, say, a mosquito landing on some water and its tiny ripple marks. That’s an example of going from deep focus to an extreme close-up.”

Schaffert admires how Hansen’s work “is so poetic for prose. The attention he gives each word, each sentence, each expression of the characters is just so expert and masterful. You definitely become spirited away by his imagination. There’s a marriage between the images and the language so that it’s not just vivid description but images that come from the words themselves.”

In the 4 p.m. Q & A Schaffert plans asking Hansen “what it means to write something with an image in mind and then to see someone else make that image happen. As a writer myself the idea of taking an image, bringing it into words, working it into narrative and then communicating that into someone else’s mind is just rife with failed possibility.”

Hansen’s precise prose in James amounted to cutting in the camera.

“Most of the time the prose was so clear about what the actions were they could only have happened in a limited number of ways,” he said. “Now, there’s always going to be changes in camera movements and so forth. For example, before Bob Ford goes in to kill Jesse James he’s out in the backyard washing his face from a pump. I just had the water sloshing down his temple, but Andrew had the camera go way above to look down at the water in a bowl or bucket, with Bob’s face reflected in that water. I would not have considered that, but it’s of a piece of how films are made — taking a scene from lots of different angles.”

Hansen wishes he could avail himself of filmmakers’ resources when writing a novel.

“I really envy the information they have access to. Art director Patricia Norris knew exactly what kind of clothes people would wear. I was laboring in a total vacuum in that regard. In my bit part as a journalist they had me wear a suit from the 19th century. That is so useful to know exactly what those pieces of clothing feel like, and novelists never have that. When they dressed the set for the train robbery they had a railroad car from that period. For interior scenes there were real antiques. I didn’t have access to that stuff, so in terms of scene setting it was really remarkable. That kind of attention to detail was all the way through the film. That’s what a novelist relishes.”

Critics knocked the film’s slow takes but Hansen likes that it disrupts our rapid-cut expectations “by setting a more 19th century mood.” He likes the music underscoring the film. He feels Pitt and Affleck hit all the right notes in their roles.
Schaffert hopes his work gets the same filmic treatment one day.w

Beware the Singularity, Singing the Retribution Blues: New Works by Rick Dooling

October 10, 2010 4 comments

 

The best writing challenges our preconceptions of the world, and Rick Dooling is an author who consistently does that in his essays, long form nonfiction, and novels.  He’s also a screenwriter.  If you know his work, then you know how his language and ideas stretch your mind.  If you don’t know his work, then consider this a kind of book club recommendation.  I promise, you won’t be disappointed.  The following piece I did on Dooling appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) a couple years ago upon the release of his book, Rapture for the Geeks, When AI Outsmarts IQ.  The work reads like a cross between a love ballad to the wonders of computer technology and a cautionary tale of that same technology one day overtaking humans’ capacity to control it.  Around this same time, a suspenseful, supernatural film Dooling wrote the screenplay for from a Stephen King short story, Dolan’s Cadillac,  finished shooting. Dooling previously collaborated with King on the television miniseries, Kingdom Hospital.  Dooling is currently working on a TV pilot.

You can find more pieces by me on Rick Dooling, most efficiently in the category with his name, but also in several other categores, including Authors/Literature and Nebraskans in Film.

Beware the Singularity, Singing the Retribution Blues: New Works by Rick Dooling

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

It’s been awhile since Omaha writer Rick Dooling, author of the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm, enjoyed this kind of traction. Fall 2008 saw published his cautionary riff Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ (Harmony Books). His screen adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, Dolan’s Cadillac, will soon be released as an indie feature. Dooling, collaborator with King on the network television series Kingdom Hospital, was flattered the master of horror himself asked him to tackle Dolan, a classic revenge story with supernatural undertones.

Dooling’s no stranger to movie-movie land. His novel Critical Care was adapted into a Sidney Lumet film. The author was preparing to adapt Brainstorm for Alan J. Pakula when the director died in a freak accident. Then there was the creative partnership with King. But writing books is his stock-in-trade, and even though Dolan could change that, Rapture’s what comes to mind in any appreciation of Dooling.

Like much of his socially conscious work Rapture’s a smart, funny, disturbing, essay-like take on a central conflict in this modern age, one that, depending on your point of view, is either rushing toward a critical tipping point or is much ado about nothing. He fixes on the uncomfortable interface between the cold, hard parameters of computer technology’s increasing sophistication and meta-presence in our lives with existential notions of what it means to be human.

High tech’s ever more integrated in our lives. We rely on it for so many things. Its systems grow faster, more powerful. Dooling considers nothing less than humankind nearing an uneasy threshold when the artificial intelligence we’ve engineered surpasses our own. He lays out how the ongoing exponential growth of super processing capabilities is a phenomenon unlike any other in recorded history. The implications of the singularity, as geeks and intellectuals call this moment when interconnected cyber systems outstrip human functioning, range from nobody-knows-what-happens-next to dark Terminator-Matrix scenarios.

A fundamental question he raises is, Can the creators of AI really be supplanted by their creation? If possible, as the book suggests it is, then what does that do to our concept of being endowed with a soul by a divinity in whose image we’re made? Is synthetic intelligence’s superiority a misstep in our endeavors to conquer the universe or an inevitable consequence of the evolutionary scheme?

“Well, we all know what evolution is. We’ve read about it, we understand it, it’s just that we always have this humancentric, anthropocentric viewpoint,” Dooling said. “Wouldn’t it make perfect sense there would be another species that would come after us if evolution continued? Why would we be the last one?”

Is AI outsmarting IQ part of a grand design? Where does that leave humanity? Are we to enter a hybrid stage in our development in which nanotechnology and human physiology merge? Or are we to be replaced, even enslaved by the machines?

The real trouble comes if AI gains self-knowledge and asserts control. That’s the formula for a rise-of-the-machines prescience that ushers in the end of homo sapien dominance. Or has mastery of the universe always been an illusion of our conceit? Is the new machine age our comeuppance? Have we outsmarted ourselves into our own decline or demise? Can human ingenuity prevent a cyber coup?

Arrogantly, we cling to the belief we’ll always be in control of technology. “Do you believe that?” Dooling asked. “It is kind of the mechanical equivalent of finding life on other planets.” In other words, could we reasonably assume we’d be able to control alien intelligent life? Why should we think any differently about AI?

Pondering “what man hath wrought” is an age-old question. We long ago devised the means to end our own species with nuclear/biological weapons and pollutants. Nature’s ability to kill us off en masse with virus outbreaks, ice cap melts or meteor strikes is well known. What’s new here is the insidious nature of digital oblivion. It may already be too late to reverse our absorption into the grid or matrix. Most of us are still blissfully unaware. The wary may reach a Strangelove point of How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Microchip.

It’s intriguing, scary stuff. Not content with simply offering dire predictions, Dooling examines the accelerating cyber hold from different perspectives, presenting alternate interpretations of what it may mean — good, bad, indifferent. This kaleidoscopic prism for looking at complex themes is characteristic of him.

Extremities lend themselves to the satire he’s so adept at. He finds much to skewer here but isn’t so much interested in puncturing holes in theories as in probing the big ideas and questions the coming singularity, if you ascribe to it, inspires. His drawing on scientific, religious, literary thinkers on the subject confirms his firm grasp and thorough research of it.

The project was a labor of love for Dooling, a self-described geek whose fascination with computers and their content management, data base applications began long before the digital revolution hit main street. We’re talking early 1980s. “Not many writers were drawn to computers that early,” he said, “but of course now you can’t write without a computer most people would say.”

He designs web sites, he builds computers and because “I knew I wanted to write about this,” he said, “I knew I was going to get no respect until I could at least write code and do programming.” Deep into html he goes.

The pithy, portentous quotations sprinkled throughout the book come from the vast files of sayings and passages he’s collected and stored for just such use.

Aptly, he became a blog star in this high-tech information age after an op-ed he wrote that drew heavily from Rapture appeared in The New York Times. His piece responded to oracle Warren Buffett’s warning, “Beware of geeks bearing formulas,” following the stock market crash. Dooling enjoys Web exchanges with readers.
“I’m telling you every blog from here to Australia quoted this op-ed, with extended commentary. I’ve never seen anything like that happen with my work before. It took me completely by surprise. It makes you realize how powerful the Internet is.”

If you doubt how ingrained our computer interactions are, Dooling said, think about this the next time you call Cox Communications with a technical issue:

“Your first few minutes of interaction are being handled by a chatterbot,” Dooling said, “and some people don’t even realize it. It’ll say, ‘Let me ask you a few questions first,’ and then it’ll go, ‘Hold on and I will connect you with one of our assistants’ or something like that. And when you’ve reached the point where the thing has gathered everything it can automatically gather now you need an intervention from someone in India to come on and actually take over and start doing the human interaction. Until then, that’s a piece of software talking to you.

“The chatterbots are getting very good. It’s taking longer and longer in a Turing Test type of situation” for people to determine they’re bandying back and forth with a machine not another person. He said that’s because advanced chatterbots can be programmed to exhibit qualities like humor or variations of it like sarcasm.

“I mean the very first one, Eliza, I talk about in there (Rapture), they fooled hundreds of people with in the beginning because people were naive back then. The designers did it just by turning every question around. They call the software a Rogerian Psychiatrist because you go, ‘I hate my brother,’ and it responds, ‘Why do you hate your brother?’ Or you say, ‘I feel terrible today, and it goes, ‘Why do you feel terrible today?’ My favorite one is, ‘My brother hates me’ and it asks, ‘Who else in your family hates you?’ Do you love it?”

For those who dismiss high-tech’s hold he points to our computer, iPod, cell phone, online fixations and prodigious digital activities as creating cyber imprints of our lives. Our identity, profile, personal data, preferences become bit/byte fodder.

“And it’s true, you know, because when you log onto something like dig or slash.com they’re showing you stuff based upon every time you’ve been there and what you clicked on,” he said. “And when you’re going on something like Wikipedia and contributing content the operating system is like, Oh, good, more content here. ‘Based on your contributions in the past, it appears you really enjoy the singularity, would you like to write an article about it?’

“At one point in there (Rapture) I think I quote George Johnson from The New York Times, who takes it to the next level by saying, Look, does it really matter what you believe about your dependence if Amazon’s picking your books and eHarmony’s picking your spouse and Net Flix is picking your movies? You’ve been absorbed, you’ve been to the operating system, they already own you.”

Skeptics counter that’s a far leap to actually losing our autonomy. “Yeah, but in exponential times a very far leap is no longer a very far leap,” said Dooling.

Virtual reality’s dark side also interests Dooling. “Well, it does make you think about things like technology or Internet addiction or any of those things,” he said. “I believe that’s very real and it’s just going to get worse. A lot of people don’t even realize they are addicted until they’re stuck somewhere without their iTouch or whatever. And then you see it in your kids. You know, what does that mean?”

He said at book club forums he does for Rapture “people have a sense technology is changing them but they are uncertain about its effects. They also sense the dramatic speed and exponential increases in power, but don’t know where that will all end up. Most people feel like computers are already smarter than them, so they are more curious about the possible dangers of a future where computers are literally in charge of the Internet or our financial welfare. We’ve seen just a sample with the computer-generated derivatives that began the latest crash. What about nanotechnology and the gray goo phenomenon? That is, the possibility a terrorist or ‘mad scientist’ could create something that replicates, exponentially of course, until it crushes everything…It goes on.”

Dooling doesn’t pretend to know what lies ahead. He’s only sure the techno landscape will grow ever larger, more complex and that America lags far behind countries like India and China in math, science, IT expertise, broad band penetration and high tech infrastructure. The good news is greater connectivity will continue flattening the world, opening up new opportunities.

“In the short term I think what you see is exponentially increased collaboration and intelligence sharing and data sharing,” he said. “But beyond that we don’t know where it’s going to go.”

The same can be said for Dolan’s Cadillac. At the start anyway. Obsession, Old Testament-style, is the theme of the Stephen King story Dooling adapted. More precisely, how far will someone go to exact revenge? King’s original appears in his short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

In the script, which adheres closely to King’s story, Robinson (Wes Bentley) is bent on avenging his wife Elizabeth‘s murder. His target — big-time criminal Jimmy Dolan (Christian Slater), a human trafficker who makes the drive between Vegas and L.A. in his prized, heavily-armored Cadillac escorted by two bodyguards. The ruthless Dolan, who ordered the hit on Elizabeth, seems impervious. Robinson, a school teacher, appears outmatched. But with the visage of his dear-departed egging, nagging, cajoling him on, Robinson lays a diabolical trap for Dolan and his Caddy.

After King asked him to adapt it, Dooling read the tale and it hooked him. How could it not? It has a relentless, driven quality that captivates you from the jump and never lets up, with enough macabre twists to keep you off balance. From the first time we meet Robinson, half-out-of-his-mind laboring on a desolate stretch of U.S. 71 in the killing Nevada sun, we know we’re in for a ride. We have no idea what he’s doing out there. That’s what the rest of the film is about.

Dooling said he likes the story being “the revenge of a common man, not an ex-Navy Seal or ex-cop or whatever. He doesn’t care if he loses, because his life is over anyway, but he’d really rather make sure he gets Dolan first.”

Another writer took a crack at adapting Dolan. That left Dooling with a choice.

“In Hollywood you can either look at the first project and try and fix it or you can choose to start from scratch,” he said. “I decided to write it myself, which is riskier, because if you do it yourself there’s no one really to blame except you.”

He said King’s story is set-up as “the perfect second half of a movie,” which found Dooling filling-in “how did we get here.” That meant detailing the back story of how Elizabeth (Emmanuelle Vaugier) stumbled onto Dolan and crew to witness something she shouldn’t, her going to the feds and despite protection being killed. It also meant fleshing out Dolan’s lifestyle and business dealings and Robinson’s transformation into a single-minded vindicator.

The film shot largely in Regina and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 2008, where Dooling was on set for weeks. He saw several cuts of the film, including the final. He’s pleased with the results. Among other things, he’s impressed by Bentley and Slater in the leads.

“Bentley’s quite bland to begin with, but once he begins stalking Dolan he makes himself into one intense, haunted creature,” said Dooling, adding Slater makes us “like Dolan every once in a while. Not many bad people are just plain bad. They usually have a story…and Slater is good at telling us that story.”

He admires the inventive ways director Jeff Beesley handled Elizabeth’s many ghostly appearances, both visually and with voiceover.

It was Dooling’s first experience with an indie project. “It was both scary and exciting because you’re kind of out there, up in Regina. It was great. Lots of fun.”

‘Lovely, Still’ is that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity

October 2, 2010 8 comments

Image by 1031 via Flickr

This post is likely the last major piece I write about Lovely, Still, the sweet and searing debut feature by Nik Fackler, who I am sure I will be writing about again. The film stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in roles that allow them to showcase their full range humanity, a rare thing for senior actors in movies these days.  If the movie is playing near you, take a chance on this low budget indie that actually has the look of a big budget pic.  If you don’t have a chance to see it in a theater, look for it when it comes out on DVD in November.  As deserving as the film is for Oscar consideration, particularly the performances by Landau and Burstyn, it’s unlikely to break through due to its limited release. The following article I wrote for the New Horizons comes close to giving away the film’s hook, but even if you should hazard to guess it, the film will still work for you and may in fact work on a deeper level.  That was my experience after knowing the hook and still being swept away by the story.  It happened both times I’ve seen it.  My other Lovely, Still and Nik Fackler stories can be found on this blog.

‘Lovely, Still’ is that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons

Hollywood legends seldom come to Omaha. It’s even rarer when they arrive to work on a film. Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney did for the 1938 MGM classic Boys Town. Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates crashed for Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.

More recently, Oscar-winning actors Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn spent two months here, during late 2007, as the leads in the indie movie Lovely, Still, the debut feature of hometown boy Nik Fackler.

True, George Clooney shot some scenes for Up in the Air in town, but his stay here was so brief and the Omaha footage so minimal that it doesn’t really count.

Lovely, Still on the other hand was, like Boys and Schmidt before it, a prolonged and deep immersion experience for the actors and the crew in this community. Landau and Burstyn grew close to Fackler, who’s young enough to be their grandson, and they remain close to him three years later.

Since the production practically unfolded in Fackler’s backyard, the actors got to meet his family and friends, some of whom were on the set, and to visit his haunts, including the Millard eatery his family owns and operates, Shirley’s Diner. It’s where, until recently, Nick worked. It’s also where he carefully studied patrons, including an older man who became the model for Lovely protagonist Robert Malone (Landau).

Then there’s the fact the film drips Omaha with scenes in the Old Market, Gene Leahy Mall, Memorial Park and Country Club neighborhood. Omaha’s never looked this good on the big screen before.

After select showings in 2008 and 2009, including a one-week run in Omaha last year, Lovely is finally getting a general release this fall in dozens of theaters from coast to coast. It opened September 24 at the Midtown Cinema and Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha and other cities across the U.S..

For Fackler, 26, it’s the culmination of a long road that goes back to when he first wrote the script, at 17. Over time, the script evolved and once Landau and Burstyn came on board and provided their input, it changed some more. Finally seeing his “baby” reach this point means much to Fackler.

“I’ve been very emotional,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to be emotional but I have been. It’s been nine years of persistence and positivity and not giving up. It’s always been this thing in my life, Lovely, Still, that’s never gone away, and now I’m going to let it go away, and it feels good because I’m ready to let it go…

“I wanted it to come out a couple years ago, and it was delayed. Now it’s finally coming out and I feel sort of a distance from it, but at the same time it’s good I feel that because there’s nothing a bad review can say that won’t make me proud of the accomplishment. It just feels good to know that it’s out there.”

Nik Fackler

 

 

The film, which has received mixed critical notices, does well with audiences.

“People that pick up on the emotions and the feelings in the film seem to really be attached to it and love it,” Fackler said. “It’s either people really get it and get something emotional from it or people don’t get it.”

The PG movie’s slated to continue opening at different theaters throughout October before going to DVD November 9.

Lovely had its requisite one-week screenings in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. While many feel Landau and Burstyn deliver Oscar-caliber performances, the odds are stacked against them because of the film’s limited release and non-existent budget for waging an awards campaign.

Rare for features these days, the film focuses on two characters in their late 70s-early 80s. Rare for films of any era it stars two actors who are actually the advanced ages of the roles they essay. The film also approaches a sensitive topic in a way that perhaps has never been seen before.

Now for a spoiler alert. The film hinges on a plot twist that, once revealed, casts a different meaning on events. If you don’t want to know the back story, then stop reading here. If you don’t care, then continue.

Without getting specific, this story of two older people falling in love is about a family coping with Alzheimer’s Disease. Unlike perhaps a Lifetime or Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Lovely never mentions the disease by name. Instead, its effects are presented through the prism of a fairy tale, complete with exhilarating and terrifying moments, before a dose of stark reality, and an ending that’s pure wistful nostalgia.

What makes the film stand out from most others with a senior storyline is that

Landau and Burstyn create multidimensional rather than one-note characters. The script requires they play a wide range of emotional and psychological colors and these two consummate actors are up to fully realizing these complex behaviors.

A Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Ed Wood, Landau returned to Omaha last year to promote Lovely. He said he was drawn to the material by its depth and nuance and by the opportunity to play an authentic character his own age.

“I get a lot of scripts where the old guy is the crusty curmudgeon who sits at the table and grunts a lot, and that’s that, because we kind of dismiss (old) age. So, the chance of exploring this many sides of a man, and the love story aspect of the older couple, presented an interesting arc.”

The actor marvels at how someone as young as Fackler could tap so truthfully the fears and desires of characters much older than himself. During an interview at North Sea Films, the Omaha production company of co-producer Dana Altman, Landau spoke about the pic, playing opposite his friend Ellen Burstyn, and working with wunderkind writer-director Fackler, whom he affectionately calls “the kid.”

Before there was even a chance of landing an actor of Landau’s stature producers had to get the script in his hands through the golden pipeline of movers and shakers who make feature film projects possible. Fackler’s script long ago earned him a William Morris agent — the gold standard for artists/entertainers.

Landau explained, “Nick sent it to William Morris, who has an independent feature division, who sent to my agent, who sent it to me. I liked it a lot, but I felt there were bumps in it at the time. Some scenes that shouldn’t be in the first act, some scenes that needed to be in the first act. What the second act was I had no idea.” Enough substance was there that Landau expressed interest. It was only then he learned the unlikely author was a not-long-out-of-high school 20-something whose directing experience consisted of low budget shorts and music videos.

“I said, “I want to meet with the writer, figuring somebody maybe close to my age. I said, ‘How old is he?, and they said 22 (at the time). A few minutes later my eyes were still crossed and I said, ‘Wow. I mean, how does a 22 year-old write an older couple love story with this texture?’”

The venerable, much honored actor took a lunch meeting with the Generation Y upstart at an L.A. cafe. Each was a bit wary whether he could work with the other. Landau recalled that initial meeting, which he used to gauge how open Fackler was to accepting notes to inform rewrites:

“I basically said, ‘This is a terrific script, but it’s bumpy. If you’re willing to do this with me, I’ll do the movie,’ and Nick said, ‘OK.’Well, he did a rewrite on the basis of what we talked about, For two months we talked on the phone, several times a week, five or six pages at a time” to smooth out those bumps.

Landau and Fackler devised a wish list of actresses to play Mary. Burstyn, the Best Actress Oscar-winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was their first choice. On Landau’s advice Fackler waited until the rewrite was complete before sending the script to her. When she received it, she fell in love with the property, too.

Even as much as he and Burstyn loved the storyl, signing on with such an inexperienced director was a risk “It was a leap of faith working with a kid,” said Landau, “but he’s talented and adventurous and imaginative and willing to listen. He reminds me of Tim Burton. Less dark, maybe a little more buoyant.”

In the end, the material won over the veterans.

“Actors like me and Ellen are looking for scripts that have some literary value. Good dialogue today is rare. Dialogue is what a character is willing to reveal to another character. The 90 percent he isn’t is what I do for a living. It’s harder and harder to get a character-driven movie made by a studio or independents and it’s harder to get theaters to take them, so many go directly to DVD, if they’re lucky. Others fall through the cracks and are never seen, and that’s going to happen more.”

The suits calling the shots in Hollywood don’t impress Landau.

“Half the guys running the studios, some of them my ex-agents, haven’t read anything longer than a deal memorandum. And they’re deciding what literary piece should be made as a film?”

He likes that this movie is aimed for his own underserved demographic.

“A lot of older people are starved for movies,” he said. “They’re not interested in fireballs or car chases or guys climbing up the sides of buildings.”

 

 

 

 

He attended a Las Vegas screening of the pic before a huge AARP member crowd and, he said, spectators “were enwrapped with this movie. It talked to them. I mean, they not just liked it, it’s made for them. There’s a huge audience out there for it.”

Instead of an age gap they couldn’t overcome, Landau and Fackler discovered they were kindred spirits. Before he got into acting, Landau studied music and art, and worked as an editorial cartoonist. He draws and paints, as well as writes, to this day. Besides writing and directing films, Fackler is a musician and a visual artist.

“I feel that Martin and I are very similar and we get along really well,” said Fackler, who added the two of them still talk frequently. He described their relationship as a mutually “inspired” one in which each feeds the other creatively and spiritually. Fackler also feels a kinship with Burstyn. He said he gets away to a cabin she has in order to write.

On most any film there comes a time when the director must fight for his or her vision, and Fackler found an ally in Landau.

“One of the main things Martin repeated to me over and over again was, ‘This is your movie.’ He made sure that rang in my ears,” said Fackler, “just to make sure I stayed strong when I came up against fights and arguments with people that wanted the film to be something I didn’t want it to be, and much love to him for doing that. Those words continue to ring in my ear in his voice to this day, and I’m sure for the rest of my career.”

Landau and Burstyn brought their considerable experience to bear helping the first-time feature director figure out the ropes, but ultimately deferred to him.

“All good films are collaborations,” said Landau. “A good director, and I’ve worked with a lot of them (Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Coppola, Allen), doesn’t direct, he creates a playground in which you play. Ninety percent of directing is casting the right people. If you cast the right people what happens in that playground is stuff you couldn’t conceive of beforehand.”

“It was collaborative,” said Fackler. “We were a team, it was artists working together the same way a group of musicians make a band. We became friends and then after we became friends we respected each other’s opinions.”

As for working with Burstyn, Landau said, “it’s a joy. She’s a terrific actress.” He compared doing a scene with her to having a good tennis partner. “If you’re playing pretty well and you’ve got a good partner you play better. You don’t know exactly where they’re going to place the ball, and it’s that element when Ellen and I work together we have. It’s never exactly the same. She’ll throw the ball and I’ll get to the ball, toss it back to her, so that it’s alive. I won’t call them accidents but they are sin a way, which is what living is, and that element of unpredictability and ultimately inevitability, is what good acting is about. That stuff is what I care about.”

Not every review of the film has been positive. Some critics seem uneasy with or dismissive of its emotionalism, complaining it’s too cloying or precious. That emotional journey of a man who believes he’s falling in love for the first time, only to find out the bitter truth of what he’s lost, is what appealed to Landau.

“The interesting thing about this movie is that if you took away the last act you could cast 15 year-olds in it and not change a lot,” said Landau. “Nick (first) wrote it when he was 17. It’s basically a teenage romance. There’s something simplistic and sweet about these two people who want to be together. Robert’s naive, he’s a kid on his first date. That’s why Nik was able to write it — because he was going through stuff, his first love. The primal feelings people have at 15 or 50 or 80 are pretty much the same.”

Landau is proud to be associated with the film for many reasons, among them its effective portrayal of memory loss.

“I absolutely believe in this film. When I did Ed Wood I felt that way. But this one because I know so many people who’ve had memory problems or are having memory problems. My brother-in-law had Alzheimer’s. A lot of close peers of mine. The Alzheimer’s Association is very behind this movie because it rings true…”

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