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Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom

February 29, 2012 3 comments

Alexander Payne‘s love affair with the movies began when he was a child in his hometown of Omaha.  The nascent cinephile’s frequent filmgoing companion then was his mother, Peggy Payne, who recognized her prodigy of a son expressed far more interest in grown-up films than children’s fare, and she indulged his serious passion by taking him to screenings of art movies.  Decades later the world-class filmmaker told the world how much he appreciates what she did for him when he dedicated his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants to her.  In doing so he said “I love you” in Greek, thus acknowledging his family’s heritage, which he’s extremely proud of.  He also singled out one of his producing partner’s, Jim Burke, star George Clooney, and author Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose novel he and fellow Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash adapted.

Alexander Payne with his mother on the red carpet

 

 

Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The obvious and not so obvious came into focus when native son Alexander Payne accepted his second Oscar in front of a live audience of his peers and a television viewing audience estimated at 1.2 billion during Sunday’s Academy Awards.

He shared Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose mimicking of presenter Angelina Jolie‘s power pose seemingly distracted and peeved Payne as he tried beating the clock with his thank-yous. Always the pro though, he quickly collected himself and offered one of the evening’s best grace notes with this tribute:

“We share this with George Clooney and the rest of the cast for interpreting our screenplay so generously and we also share it in particular with Kaui Hart Hemmings, our beautiful Hawaiian flower, for her novel.”

A radiant Hemmings sat next to the debonair Payne and his date for the evening, his well-coiffed mother Peggy, and it was to her and their shared Greek heritage he made the most moving gesture.

“And on a brief personal note if I may, my mother is here with me from Omaha, hold the applause, and after watching the show a few years ago she made me promise that if I ever won another Oscar I had to dedicate it to her just like Javier Bardem did with his mother (eliciting laughter). So, Mom, this one’s for you. Se agapao poly. (Greek for “I love you very much.”). And thanks for letting me skip nursery school so we could go to the movies. Thanks a lot.”

Payne has sometimes mentioned his mother and father both indulged his early childhood fascination with film, but it was she who took him to see the cutting-edge grown-up movies he preferred over children’s fare.

He could have quipped about her insisting that only her Countryside Village hair stylist attend to her tresses, which meant he had to fly the hairdresser out to L.A.

He could have used the stage to poke Nebraska legislators, as he did six weeks ago in Lincoln, for leverage in trying to get film industry tax credits passed here, lest he have to take his planned Nebraska project to, say, Kansas. He could have tweaked the noses of Paramount suits who gave him a hard time about his insistence in wanting to shoot Nebraska in black-and-white.

That he didn’t show anyone up speaks to his respect for the industry and his desire to not burn bridges. Besides, as he recently told a reporter, “I like the Oscars.” It’s obvious the Oscars like him. The only question is when he when he will take home Best Picture and Best Director awards.

‘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…”

Nik Fackler, The Film Dude Establishes Himself a Major New Cinema Figure with ‘Lovely, Still’


Christmas in the post-War United States

Image via Wikipedia

This article on emerging filmmaker Nik Fackler makes no bones about his establishing himself a major cinema figure on the strength of his first feature, Lovely, Still. The pic is finally getting a general release this fall, but it’s picked up a slew of admirers and awards, most recently from screenings at the California Independent Film Festival.  Watch for this film when it comes to a theater near you or plays on cable or wherever else you can find it, because it’s the work of an artist who will make his presence felt.  As he prepares to make his next projects, I feel the same way about Fackler that I did about Alexander Payne when I saw his debut feature Citizen Ruth – that this is an important artist we will all be hearing much more from in the future.  I look forward to charting his journey wherever it takes him.

NOTE: This article appeared in advance of a limited engagement run of Lovely, Still in Nik’s hometown of Omaha last fall.  The film is having a full national release  the fall of 2010.  Look for it at a theater near you in September or October, perhaps later.

Check out my most recent post about the film, Fackler, and the relationship between he and star Martin Landau.

Nik Fackler, The Film Dude Establishes Himself a Major New Cinema Figure with ‘Lovely, Still’

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

After what must seem an eternity, Omaha’s resident Film Dude, writer-director Nik Fackler, finally has the satisfaction of his first feature being theatrically screened. An advance one-week Omaha engagement of his Lovely, Still opens the new Marcus Midtown Cinema, Nov. 6-12.

The film’s box office legs won’t be known until its 2010 national release. Screenings for New York, L.A. and foreign press will give Lovely the qualifying runs it needs for Academy Awards consideration next year. It’d be a stretch for such a small film to net any nominations but the lead performances by Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn are so full and finely honed they’re Oscar-worthy by any standard.

Both artists strip themselves emotionally bare in scenes utilizing all their Method gifts. Their work is: dynamic, never dull; natural, unforced. Their behaviors appropriate for the romantic, comedic, dramatic or just Being There moments.

Nods for writing, direction, cinematography, editing and music would be unlikely but not out-of-line for this gorgeous-looking, powerfully-rendered, well-modulated movie that hits few false notes. The film pops with energy and emotion despite a precious storyline of senior citizens rediscovering first love.

The local creative class is well represented by Tim Kasher’s “additional writing,” James Devney’s strong portrayal of Buck, a lush score by composers Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott and dreamy tunes by Conor Oberst and other Saddle Creek artists.

It’s at least as impressive a feature debut as Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth.

An indication of how much Landau believes in Lovely and how proud he is of his gutsy star-turn in what Fackler calls “a showcase role that’s very challenging” is the actor’s appearances at select screenings. That includes this Friday in Omaha, when he and Fackler do Q & As following the 6:15 and 9:15 p.m. shows at Midtown.

Fackler’s at ease with the film that’s emerged. “I am very content, although it has changed a lot,” he said, “but I welcome all changes. Film is an ever changing beast. You must embrace the artistic transformation. To not allow it, is to limit it.” Much hype attended the making of the 25-year-old’s debut feature, shot in his hometown in late 2007. It was the first movie-movie with a real budget and name stars made entirely in Nebraska since Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.

Circumstances caused the film that generated serious buzz a couple years ago and then again at the Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery Program in 2008 to fall off the radar. Lovely producers turned down a distribution offer. They continue negotiations seeking the right release strategy-deal. Self-release is an option.

It’s been a long wait for Fackler to see his vision on screen – six years since writing it, five years since almost first making it in 2005, two years since completing principal photography and one year since reshoots and reediting.

“This has been the longest I’ve like worked on a single project for forever,” he said. “It’s really been a marathon.”

Anticipation is great, not just among the Nebraska film community that worked the pic. Whenever stars the caliber of Landau and Burstyn throw their weight behind a project as they’ve done with Lovely the industry takes note. That a 20-something self-taught filmmaker with only micro-budget shorts and music videos to his name landed Oscar-winning icons certainly got people’s attention. As did hanging his script’s sentimental story about two old people falling in love at Christmas on a subversive hook that turns this idyll into something dark, real, sad and bittersweet. Throw in some magic realism and you have a Tim Burtonesque holiday fable.

The two stars would never have gotten involved with a newcomer on an obscure indie project unless they believed in the script and its author-director. At the time Fackler lacked a single credit on his IMDB page. Who was this kid? In separate meetings with the artists he realized he was being sized up.

“It was really intimidating,” Fackler said of meeting Landau in a Studio City, Calif. cafe. “I was just super freaked out. I don’t know why. I’m usually never that way. But it was like I was about to meet with this legend actor to talk about the script and for him to kind of like feel me out — to see it he can trust me as a director, because I’m a young guy. We’re from such different generations.”

The two hit it off. Lovely producer Lars Knudson of New York said Fackler “aced” a similar test with Burstyn in Manhattan: “It’s a lot of pressure for a (then) 23-year-old to meet with someone like Ellen, who’s worked with the biggest and best directors in the world, but Nik blew her away. I think she called him a Renaissance Man.” Knudson said “it’s really impressive” Fackler won over two artists known for being ultra-selective. “They’re very critical. They’ve done this for so many years that they will only do something if they really believe it’s going to be good.”

Lovely producer Dana Altman of Omaha said the respect Fackler gave the actors earned him theirs.

Anyone reading the screenplay could see its potential. Besides A-list stars other top-notch pros signed on: director of photography Sean Kirby (Police Beat), production designer Stephen Altman (Gosford Park Oscar nominee) and editor Douglas Crise (Babel Oscar nominee).

But the history of films long on promise and short on execution is long. As Dana Altman said, any film is the collective effort of a team and Lovely’s team melded. On location Fackler expressed pleasure with how the crew  - a mix from L.A. and Omaha – meshed. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength,” he said. Still, it was his first feature. DP Sean Kirby said, “Anytime you do something for the first time, like direct a feature film, there’s a learning curve, but I think he’s learned very quickly.” Fackler admitted to making “a bunch of mistakes” he “won’t make again.”

The subject matter made the film rife with traps. Take its tone. Handled badly, it could play as treacle or maudlin. Instead, it reads poignant and tragic, and that’s to everyone’s credit who worked on the film.

Then there’s Fackler’s penchant for going on fantastical jags in his work, routine in videos but risky in features. His loose approach, such as ditching the shot list to improvise, combined with the total creative freedom producers granted, meant he could play to his heart’s content, within reason. That can lead to self-indulgent filmmaking. Indeed, he fought and won the right to shoot trippy dream sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor. But some experimental lighting techniques to express tangled memories do make an effective motif in the final cut.

Following the mostly positive Toronto showing, the team reassembled for Omaha reshoots and New York pick ups. His leads supported the fixes and coverage.

“Martin and Ellen were behind it, they weren’t annoyed by it, they thought all the reshoots were going to make the film better,” said Fackler. “It wasn’t something that felt forced or anything like that. Everyone was on the same page.”

The young artist and his venerable stars established an early rapport built on trust. “We became friends,” he said. He readily accepted ideas from them that helped ripen the script and gave its young creator deeper insights into their characters.

“What’s great about Nik, especially at his age, is he’s willing to collaborate with people. It’s still his vision, but if it makes it better he’ll change it, he’s not afraid,” said Knudson, who said the script owes much to the input of Landau and Burstyn. “He’s very sort of ego-less.”

It’s all in line with Fackler’s predilection for creating a relaxed set where spot-on discipline coexists amid a way-cool, laidback sensibility that invites suggestions. On location for Lovely he exhibited the same playful, informal vibe he does on his videos: whether going “yeah, yeah” to indicate he likes something or pulling on a can of Moen between takes or doing a private, Joe Cocker dance watching scenes or saying to his DP setting up a shot, “Feelin’ good then? Then let’s kick ass!”

Fackler’s totally of his Generation Y culture, just don’t mistake his nonchalance for slacker mentality. He’s all about the work. He carved a career out-of-thin-air directing videos for Saddle Creek recording artists. His shorts netted the attention and backing of Altman. He cobbled together casts, crews and sets, often doing every job himself, before Lovely. He hung in there six years waiting for this moment, working at his family’s business, Shirley’s Diner, to pay the bills.

“If there’s ever a roadblock you can always get around it. It’s just a matter of taking the time…and not giving up. I wanted the roadblocks. I was like, Bring ‘em on, because I had a lot of ambition and I still do. I  guess it’s just something that I always thought anything is possible. It’s like the naive child in me never left me. I love it. I try to get everyone else around me to feel the same way.”

It was in an L.A. editing room where the jumble of material he shot for Lovely finally came into focus.

“The film from script to screen went through a lot,” he said. “I tried every possible edit. That’s why we ended up editing two months more than we thought we were. But luckily, you know, everyone — producers and investors – were supportive of that process, They didn’t put that much pressure on me because they saw that the film was pretty good, they liked it, and so they allowed us to do it. I ended up throwing the dreams out all together because they weren’t working, and using the experimental lighting scenes because they ended up looking so good.

“I have no regret cutting things I shot. I love the film I have. I love cutting stuff. My philosophy while editing was to not be attached to anything. Once I lived by that rule, everything came free. What matters is making the best film possible, always.”

That mature-beyond-his-years attitude drew Altman to be his mentor. Altman, whose North Sea Films produced Lovely with Knudson and Jay Van Hoy’s Parts and Labor, credits Fackler for hanging in there and doing what’s best for the project, saying: “it’s taken a great deal of patience. Poor Nik, he really does want to see this get released.” Whatever happens, Fackler’s satisfied with what he’s wrought.

“I like to take children’s themes that anyone from any age can understand and then put them in these like really harsh realities of what life can be like. Lovely, Still is very much written to evoke some kind of feeling. It takes place during Christmas time and it deals with family and love. It’s multi-layered. For some people that may be a happy feeling and for others it may be depressing. Art is trying to create a new feeling you’ve never felt before. You watch a film and you leave the film feeling a new way. You may not have a name for the feeling, but it’s new.

“That’s all I can hope for.”

He recently collaborated with cult comic strip-graphic novel artist Tony Millionaire on a script adaptation of Millionaire’s Uncle Gabby. “I can’t wait to bring existentialism and poetry to the children’s film genre,” said Fackler. ”I’m also excited to work with puppetry. It will be like playing with toys! ALL DAY LONG!”

Altman, Knudson and Co. have informal first-look rights on Fackler projects.The same producers who’ve had his back on Lovely look forward to a long association. “Like Dana (Altman), we want to continue working with Nik and we want to create a family sort of, so he feels protected, so he can make the movies he wants to make for the rest of his career,” said Knudson. Radical, man.

A Woman Under the Influence

July 5, 2010 1 comment

Leontyne Price, American opera singer

Image via Wikipedia

Vivacious Robinlyn Sayers seemingly came out of nowhere to mesmerize Omaha theatergoers with her captivating portray of Hattie McDaniel in a one-woman show at the Blue Barn Theatre.  The niece of football legend Gale Sayers and the daughter of the less well known but equally gifted Roger Sayers, Robinlyn was in the process of trying to reinvent herself when I met her.  She was already a distinguished medical professional but she also possessed serious chops as a singer and actress and was intrigued with the idea of doing something professionally with those skills, too, perhaps even transforming herself into a full-time performer.  The show at the Blue Barn was her Omaha stage debut and after its success she moved to Texas for another medical position.  I lost contact with her along the way and now I see she’s working as the chief financial officer for Family Service Center of Galveston County.  I trust she still performs now and then, because she’s been blessed with a great gift and it was her desire to heal people not just through health and medical services but through song and theater.  My story about her originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly.

A Woman Under the Influence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published by the Omaha City Weekly

After a diverse medical career that ranged from molecular research to community health, Omahan Robinlyn Sayers, M.D., now applies a form of healing arts, with a capital A, in service of the theater, where she’s found a home for her many dreams and talents. Fresh off a one-woman tour de force portraying the late Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel in the Blue Barn Theater production of Larry Parr‘s Hi Hat Hattie, for which her singing and acting drew raves, Sayers sees a parallel between what she did in medicine and what she does in drama. That congruence is like the kinship she feels with McDaniel, a kind of alter ego for her.

“I feel like I’m still healing on the stage,” said Sayers, a living-out-loud figure whose juke joint voice drips with honey, gin, sex and smoke and whose round, expressive eyes fill easily with tears. “I always wanted to cure. I never wanted to be somebody to just push a thermometer or check a yeast infection. I never wanted to be that simplistic. Now, it’s so gratifying to go up there for two hours on the stage and make people cry or smile or forget what happened at home. I just want to make people feel inspired, motivated, hopeful. Afterwards, they come to you and they’re so fulfilled. Like this is the best thing in their life. It’s like I’m their wonder drug.”

Sayers herself finds acting such an elixir that she’s put her work in medicine on hiatus to forge a new life in the theater, an arena she plans using to reach people. “I’m going to be very selective in the types of pieces I become involved in,” she said. “I really want to only be involved in things that are both educational and entertaining. They need to have some element of truth to them. They need to convey some sort of a message or theme or issue or be somewhat political.”

That she made her Omaha dramatic debut as Hattie McDaniel, a woman whose story intersects with her own, makes it all seem fated. “It was just God for me to be able to do this show,” Sayers said. “My goodness…there’s so many things that are similar in our lives.” Both are the youngest of Midwest families. Each dreamed of going on stage from an early age. Each married more than once without bearing a child. Like Hattie, Sayers possesses what Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who directed her in the play, called “a zest for life and a passion for the work. She’s so intelligent and she has such a desire to tell the story.”

Like Hattie, she’s soldiered on. “I like the struggles and challenges of life,” said Sayers, whose Birth of the Blues rendition is a soul-stirring summation of the black experience. And, like high-living Hattie, she said, “I give the best parties in town.”

Throwing herself into the demanding one-woman show that encompasses 80 pages of dialog and song, Sayers did extensive research on McDaniel and the Jazz Era and spent extra hours working with Toberer on character nuances. “I had to be so focused for that show,” Sayers said. “I had to isolate everybody from my life. I put in six hours a day with Susan (Toberer), not to mention what I did at home. I put a lot into it.” During the February 6 through 29 run Sayers also cultivated some rituals to help her get in character and commune with Hattie’s spirit. For example, before the curtain went up she got in the habit of quickly running through the show backstage and she enlisted the crew, including Toberer and the play’s musical director, Keith Hart, who also played the mute pianist on stage, to pray with her.

“It was all about ushering in Hattie,” Sayers explained. “There were times when we had ushered in so many feelings, it would be scary. I wouldn’t even feel like me. I mean, there were times I felt like I was Hattie McDaniel. There was one night, and it was the last night, when I really, truly felt it. She’d won her Oscar 65 years ago that same day (as brassy Mammy in Gone with the Wind).”

“Even now,” months removed from the show, “I’m not quite separated from her,” said Sayers, adding the experience of getting so close to a figure she admires “was magical for me.” The connection she feels is so acute, she said she likes to think that “if Hattie could have chosen someone to do this role — someone with balls enough to really get her record straight for the fabulous actress and entertainer she was — that I would be the one to do it.”

She’s likely to get a chance at playing Hattie again if the Blue Barn can secure the rights to the show for an as yet undetermined revival that may go on tour.

Performing has been a dream of Sayers, a native of north Omaha’s Florence area, forever. But until a couple years ago, she’d done little to heed her hunger aside from playing the lead in two Little Theater dramas at Tuskegee University, where she earned a biology degree. Despite scoring successes on stage in college, her drama aspirations were deferred in favor of her burgeoning genetic research career.

She first made a splash in academia when her research won her awards and opportunities to present papers at national conferences. Then, using her bravura persona to get noticed, she landed a job, at age 24, with the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Her NIH stint found her working in the lab of Robert Gallo, the renowned medical scientist who first isolated the AIDS virus. It was the late 1980s, a momentous period in the scientific-medical community’s investigation of AIDS and a heady time for Sayers.

“I was able to get into it (AIDS research) when it was just blowing up,” she said. “All the talents I have and all the things I learned over the years — to be able to isolate and sequence and clone — I got from working with the AIDS virus. I was blessed to be right there when they were just starting to do some really fundamental things in molecular biology. It just opened up a whole bunch of other things for me.”

Sayers has been something of a curiosity in the various labs she’s worked in over the years because she’s an M.D. without a Ph.D. “My expertise as a molecular biologist is just from OST — On the Job Training,” she said, adding there’s a weird gulf between holders of the alphabet soup titles, so much so that Ph.Ds responded to her with incredulity. “They were like, ‘Who do you think you are? We’ve gone to graduate school and defended our dissertations. Why didn’t you go to graduate school?’ And I’d tell ‘em, ‘Because I have a million other things I want to do.’ And I didn’t ever want to be just clinical. Never did.”

 

 

Hattie McDaniel

 

Doing cutting edge research appealed to Sayers’ sense of discovery, but since she didn’t want always to be confined to a lab, she went after and got her M.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Any acting thoughts were put on hold during medical school, especially when she got married. The marriage didn’t last.

After college, she worked with Boys Town National Research Hospital’s renowned Dominic Cosgrove in exploring Alports Syndrome, an inherited kidney disease that can result in deafness. Then, she and her second husband moved to Texas, where she was a microbiology and immunology research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine. Her days revolved around research, leaving little time for anything else.

“It’s a very consuming life. You’re talking 80 hours a week, seven days a week,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure I had to put on my technicians and on myself to pay very close attention to details. In science, you can’t have flaws. Your data has to be statistically significant and reproducible. You spend many hours not sleeping because you’re worried whether your incubation period is going to work out and if the temperature is going to be all right.”

Deferring one dream to pursue another has been the pattern of her life. Acting just had to wait until her passion for research ran its course. “I’m a dreamer. And the thing with me is…I have all these dreams and I know it’s just a matter of time before I knock them all out. I just go for one, and go for the other, and go for the other…and just live.” For a long time, she kept her performing ambition to herself. “A lot of times I’m afraid to share my dreams because people, you know, poison them and get you distracted and make you doubt yourself,” she said.

The youngest child of straight-laced parents, Roger Sayers and Madeline Adams Sayers, she never acted before college, but instead threw herself into her passion for animals — she was forever bringing home stray dogs — and science — she and her brother dissected salamanders and frogs. She worked for local veterinarian Bill Lofton. Her love for animals was so great, she began her Tuskegee studies in animal science, but she changed her mind after a mentor convinced her that as a bright, bold African-American female she could go far in human medicine.

As a kid, she did sing briefly with the Salem Baptist Church youth choir. Otherwise, the Northwest High grad strutted her stuff in cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming and track activities. The fact she found an outlet for self-expression in sports is no accident, as she hails from one of Nebraska’s most prominent athletic families. Her father Roger was a top American sprinter and NAIA football player at then-Omaha University in the early 1960s. Her legendary uncle, Gale, is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame following All-America and All-Pro careers with Kansas University and the Chicago Bears, respectively.

All her other performing was done privately, before friends and family, or secretly, as when she learned all the lines of a play her siblings appeared in at north Omaha’s old Afro-Academy. She was, she said, “a closet performer.” As she got older, she rarely performed publicly. There were the two plays she starred in in college. Then, while an NU Medical School student, she let her hair down singing a cover of Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face at an on-campus multicultural affairs concert. When an unexpectedly large crowd showed up, she got stage fright. As if the packed house wasn’t bad enough, she was unfamiliar with the lyrics. Then, the canned music went out mid-song, forcing her to finish acapella.

“I went all the way back in the closet,” she said of that performance nightmare.

 

 


Robinlyn Sayers

 

 

It wasn’t until moving to Texas she ventured on stage again when, at the prodding of her second husband, who “loved to hear me sing,” she sang at a string of honky tonk karaoke bars. With a penchant for singing country music and overturning people’s stereotypes, she’d go into a black bar and defiantly belt out a Shania Twain hit. “When the twang would start up,” she said, “people would be like,’Wrong song, wrong song,’ and by the end they would be like, ‘Yee-haw.’ We’d have ‘em going, and it’d be so great that I’d think, Hey, I might be kinda good.”

Still, she didn’t try out for her first play in Omaha for two years after moving back here in 2001. Her second marriage had ended. She wasn’t ready. “I was down that I couldn’t stick it out like other women and stay married,” she said. As usual, she immersed herself in work, this time at the Charles Drew Health Center, advocating  for the homeless and running the center’s chronic disease management program.

Finally, in 2003, she reached a now-or-never point in her drama dreams. “I was like, ‘I have left both of my husbands. I have no children. I’m about to turn 39, so go for it, girl, go for it.’” Without telling a soul, she auditioned for a staging of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the John Beasley Theater and won a part. Theater founder and guru, John Beasley, the film and TV actor, took her under his wing, telling her, “You∂ve got it” — meaning the acting gift. “She’s definitely got it,” he said. “She has the talent, the presence and the personality.”

She followed up Ain’t Misbehavin with a part in Little Shop of Horrors at the Millenium. It was there she met Keith Hart, who told her she’d be perfect for Hi Hat Hattie, a production of which he’d worked in in Kansas City. He sold the Blue Barn on the play and about “how completely” Sayers “threw herself into a character and a song” and how “tough and gutsy” she was. “I knew Hattie needed to be kind of a tough broad,” Hart said. One thing led to another and the Blue Barn added the play to its season and Sayers won the part in an open audition.

As much as her talent impressed Toberer and Hart, her work ethic may have won them over even more. For the audition and rehearsal process, Sayers steeped herself in all things Hattie. Untrained as an actress, she gave herself over to Toberer’s direction, learning to “link” and “pull” emotions from her own life to serve her character; for certain scenes, she drew on troubled relationsips and disturbing memories of racism. “There was unlimited discovery for me,” she said.

Among the discoveries was a tolerance for things not going according to plan, something “the control freak” struggled with in the tyranny of the lab. “It’s made me, at 39, give myself a break in life,” she said. “The last week of the show, I felt like I was running track again. When you start rockin’ and you own the show, you feel like you’re in the starting blocks again. It’s fun…crazy…exciting. I love it.”

She hopes to “ride” the momentum from Hi Hat as long as it lasts. On John Beasley’s advice, she’s taken the plunge and is seeking regional theater and film gigs in larger markets, the very path he took in launching his career. Now residing in Galveston, Texas, she recently turned heads at a Houston audition where 25 theater directors saw her. “I’m auditioning like crazy. I get great comments every time. I have been using a monologue from Hi Hat Hattie. So Hattie is still helping me.” She’s intent on going after any role that interests her and on avoiding being typecast.  If acting doesn’t work out, well, she’s already been back to school preparing for a health administration career and is in the running for a research associate spot. Either way, she said, “This is what I’m supposed to do…inspire people to dream.”

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