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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

‘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…”

Martin Landau and Nik Fackler Discuss Working Together on ‘Lovely, Still,’ and Why They Believe So Strongly in Each Other and in the New Film

September 23, 2010 1 comment

Image by 1031 via Flickr

As readers of this blog know by now, I am enthusiastic about a young Omaha filmmaker  Nik Fackler, whose feature debut, Lovely, Still, has instantly catapulted him, at least in my opinion, into the ranks of cinema artists to be watched.  This post contains two stories I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) related to Fackler and his film, which stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn.  The first article draws on an interview I did with Landau when he was in Omaha last year to promote the film.  The actor believes in the film and in Fackler, who reminds him and almost everyone who meets Fackler of Tim Burton.  The second article appeared last year and it deals more with the film itself and with the journey that Fackler and Co. underwent to get it made and seen.  For the longest time, it didn’t appear as if the picture would get any kind of national release, but thankfully it has, opening this month (September) and next  (October) in dozens of theaters around the country. It’s a well-deserved show-and-tell for a fine debut film that features exquisite performances by two old Oscar-winning stars, who in my opinion have never been better.  If you don’t catch the film in a theater near you, look for it out on DVD in November.  It’s a great pic for the Christmas holidays, similar in tone to It’s a Wonderful Life, although a very different story told in a very different way.

Look for an additional Lovely, Still article posted here in the near future.  It will contain more material from my Landau interview.

Martin Landau and Nik Fackler Discuss Working Together on ‘Lovely, Still,’ and Why They Believe  So Strongly in Each Other and in the New Film

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published 09/23/10 in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

When Martin Landau spins anecdotes about icons he’s worked with in his celebrated acting career, he can rattle off a who’s-who list.

James Dean, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Joe Mankiewicz, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen, Jeff Bridges, Francis Ford Coppola, Angelica Huston, Claire Bloom, Woody Allen, Johnny Depp, Tim Burton.

The 82-year-old Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winner (Ed Wood) is now a legend himself. So there’s something sweet and surreal when he drops Omahan Nik Fackler’s name in the same breath. The 20-something filmmaker directed Landau and fellow Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn in his feature debut Lovely, Still.

Shot in Omaha in late 2007, the film’s enjoying a national release after spot festival-preview screenings in 2008-2009. Starting Friday, it plays at Marcus Theatres’ Midtown and Village Pointe cinemas.

For Fackler, it’s an “emotional” cap to a project he first wrote nine years ago:

“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. There’s nothing a bad review can say that won’t make me proud of the accomplishment. It just feels good to know it’s out there.

“People that pick up on the emotions and the feelings in the film seem to really be attached to it and love it.”

Landau, in Omaha last year to promote the pic, said he responded strongly to the script, “figuring somebody maybe close to my age” wrote it. When he learned the author was young enough to be his grandson, he said he asked, “How does a 22-year-old write an older couple love story with this texture?”

The venerable actor took a lunch meeting with the Generation Y upstart at an L.A. cafe,  each wary if he could work with the other. Landau used the meet to gauge if Fackler would accept notes to inform rewrites. To his delight he found him “open.”

“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.”

Their top choice to play Mary opposite Landau’s Robert was Burstyn. On Landau’s advice Fackler waited until finishing the rewrite before sending her the script. She loved it, with some reservations.

“Actors like me and Ellen are looking for scripts that have some literary value. Good dialogue today is rare. 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.”

As charmed as they were, Landau said, “It was a leap of faith working with a kid, but Nick’s talented and adventurous and imaginative and willing to listen. He reminds me of Tim Burton. Less dark, maybe a little more buoyant.”

“It was collaborative,” said Fackler. “We were a team of artists working together. After we became friends we respected each other’s opinions.”

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

“I absolutely believe in this film. When I did Ed Wood I felt that way. A lot of older people are starved for movies. They’re not interested in fireballs or car chases or guys climbing up the sides of buildings.”

He attended a Las Vegas screening of Lovely before a large 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 a generation gap, Landau and Fackler discovered they were kindred spirits. Before acting, Landau studied music and art, working as a newspaper cartoonist-illustrator. He still draws and paints. Besides writing and directing, Fackler is a musician and animator.

“I feel Martin and I are very similar and we get along really well,” said Fackler, who added they still talk frequently. He described their relationship as “inspired.”  Fackler also feels a kinship with Burstyn, who has a cabin he stays at to write.

Fackler also 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, 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.”

Now dividing his time between Omaha and L.A., Fackler’s weighing his next feature: a puppet adaptation of Tony Millionaire’s work or “a period scary movie.”

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in a 2009 edition of 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.

 

Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau

 

 

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.”

 

Burstyn and Landau

 

 

 

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.

Related Articles

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


Now that filmmaker Nik Fackler’s first feature, “Lovely, Still,” has a national theatrical release scheduled, the buzz about the film, its writer-director, and its stars, Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, is getting serious. I noticed that a Nik Fackler profile on my site has been getting a fair number of hits, and so today I decided to re-post a more recent piece about Nik and his film. Check it out. I will also be adding other Fackler-”Lovely, Still” articles I’ve done. Around the time the film has its national release this fall, I will be adding new posts related to it all. That will include an extensive interview with Martin Landau.

My site also contains articles about many other cinema subjects and figures, including Alexander Payne.  Check them out.

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.

Altman on Altman: A Look at the Late American Auteur Robert Altman Through the Eyes of His Grandson, Indie Omaha Filmmaker Dana Altman, and Other Cinephiles

May 18, 2010 10 comments

Frame from the film "Man with a Movie Cam...

Image via Wikipedia

I first met and interviewed Omaha film producer-director Dana Altman some 15 or 20 years ago.  I always knew he was related to the great American filmmaker Robert Altman but it was only a few years ago I decided to delve into his relationship with his grandfather, and then when that great lion of auteurs passed away, I wrote this piece based on what Dana and other Omaha cineastes had to say about the late great master.  Of course, the story is mostly about a grandson who followed his grandfather in the business, growing up on and later apprenticing on some of Robert Altman’s pictures. It’s an offbeat story and another link in Nebraska’s rich film legacy.

The story appeared in a somewhat shortened version in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  By the way, Dana Altman is a key figure in the indie film scene in Omaha, where his North Sea Films is based.  As a producer and mentor, Altman was behind two seminal projects that energized the local indie film movement: the 1990s Omaha (the Movie) and 2010′s Lovely, Still; the former by writer-direcor Dan Mirvish proved that a no-budget feature made here could make a splash on the film festival and home video circuit; and the latter, starring Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn and written-directed by Nik Fackler, may just be the film that puts Omaha and its emergent filmmaking community on the map.

Altman on Altman: A Look at the Late American Auteur Robert Altman Through the Eyes of His Grandson, Indie Omaha Filmmaker Dana Altman, and Other Cinephiles

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Since the November death of filmmaker Robert Altman, cinema’s mourned the loss of a model for buck-the-system nonconformity and get-your-film-made-no-matter-what resolve. For Omaha native Thomas Schatz, executive director of the University of Texas at Austin Film Institute, Altman’s the reason he got into film studies. “It was immediately after a screening of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman’s ‘71 revisionist Western) in the Dundee Theater that I decided to go to ‘film school.’ True story.” For home grown filmmaker Dan Mirvish, the man behind Omaha (the movie) and the guru of Slamdance, the late director embodied the indie spirit.

In an IndieWire tribute, Mirvish wrote: “Robert Altman was a huge professional and personal inspiration to me. He really defined what it means to be an ‘independent’ filmmaker in the sense we know it today. No matter how much acclaim and experience he had, he always struggled to get financing and distribution, complained about his agents, loved to get a great cast, surrounded himself with his real and virtual family of crew, and had a hell of a lot of fun while making movies. And he just kept doing it.”

For Omaha filmmaker and Slamdance co-founder Dana Altman the appreciation runs deeper. The grandson of Robert Altman, he worked on three of his grandfather’s filmsPopeyeKansas City and Cookie’s Fortune – and saw the making of others. He shared privileged moments with him on set and at his Malibu, Calif. home. The experiences gave him an insider’s look at the process of a legendary artist whom Schatz said exerted “massive” influence on “generations of filmmakers.”

“He was the auteur’s auteur – an authentic original, a visionary filmmaker and an uncompromising individualist,” Schatz said in an e-mail. “Altman favored densely populated stories with multiple, interwoven plotlines. He worked with ensemble casts and relied heavily on his actors for improvisation and naturalistic performances. Visually, his restless, moving camera and tendency to compose ‘in depth’ kept his myriad plotlines constantly moving and made unprecedented demands on the viewer. The sound tracks in his films were equally complex and layered, with multi-track recording, overlapping dialogue, ambient sound and canny use of music providing a perfect complement to his visual and narrative design.”

Dana Altman viewed it all from a familial and film perspective. In addition to producing Mirvish’s Omaha (the movie), he’s crewed on such features as Alexander Payne’s Citizen RuthElection and About Schmidt. He’s the owner of his own local film production company, North Sea Films. He and his fellow Omahans admired how the elder Altman always marshaled on despite battles with studio executives and struggles to find financing. How his idiosyncratic vision never wavered, not after critical-commercial failures, not even after a heart transplant he kept secret from the public. Up till the end he was still scrapping, prepping a new film at age 81.

“It was always difficult for him to find financing. It was always difficult for him to make films. But he would make a film a year, sometimes two,” Altman said. “Certainly the maverick. the last thing he would do is compromise his take or his decision about what picture to make or how that picture was to be developed. He personally took them on. They were his pictures through and through. I mean, he developed the idea for Three Women from a dream that evoked the oddest visual palette for the film. It’s like one oil painting after another. Every frame of the film is just so obscure and unique and beautiful and disturbing at the same time.”

Schatz said the filmmaker was the “consummate independent, who always made films his own way and on his own terms – even if it meant making movies on 16mm or in Europe or doing cable TV series. And it was always about the art.”

The grandson echoes many others in saying that any appraisal of the late great artist must conclude that among American feature filmmakers “his struggle and fight” with the system set him apart. “Orson Welles may be the closest counterpart to that same path. But no one else,” Altman said.

Mirvish recalled an exchange with Robert Altman that taught him a lesson: “I once saw him and referred to myself as a director. He asked if I was directing anything now. ‘No,’ I sheepishly said. ‘Well, then you’re just a guy who HAS directed,’ or something to that effect. The point is, just make the next movie. It’s great advice to all of us. An Altman tactic was to set the start date, believe you’re making the movie and get the train rolling. And don’t stop…”

“It’s about doing it,” Dana Altman said.

Mirvish, also the director of Open House, considered Bob a generous mentor.

Dan Mirvish

“I met him several times over the years through Dana. He was a big help on Omaha (the movie),” Mirvish described via e-mail. “The first place we screened it was in New York at what was then the Independent Feature Film Market. The night before our big screening, he (Robert Altman) asked if it would help or hurt us if he came to the screening. We’d already shown him a rough cut. We said definitely it would help. Back in those days filmmakers were lucky if they could get five people to their screening. But as soon as Bob walked into the complex, he was like the Pied Piper…everyone in the building just followed him…We wound up with a packed house. Dana and I sat right behind Bob and about two-thirds through, he got up and walked out. My heart sank. I was afraid all those people would walk out with him. Thankfully, he just had to go to the bathroom and came right back in. Even though we would go on to play in 35 festivals around the world…in terms of industry attention, that screening was really the high point for the film. We definitely became the buzz film of the market.

“His influence on me was very prevalent on Open House, too. There was one particular conversation we had with him in New York as we were finishing Omaha…that was all about how he would shoot musical scenes with the actors singing live on set. So when we decided to do Open House as a musical, we basically did it using the Altman method.”

Dana said his grandfather “very much enjoyed Dan’s work” and took a keen interest in his own work as well. “He was very proud of my accomplishments. He never would talk specifically about the work beyond, ‘That was good.’”

Mirvish recalled how Dana asked his famous grandfather for advice. “When we first came up with the notion of Slamdance back in the fall of ’94, Dana…called up Bob and asked if we should forge ahead at the risk of pissing off Sundance. ‘Sure. Fuck ‘em,’ he said. And with that, Slamdance was born.” It wasn’t the last time Altman asked Bob, which is what he called his grandfather, for advice.

Dana was born in Calif. and raised in Fremont, Neb. His mother is Christine Altman Westphal, whose mother Lavonne Cubbison grew up in Fremont. It was just him and his single mom for a while, living as hippy-gypsies until settling down to small town life. He caught the cinema bug as a 15-year old props assistant on Popeye (1980), By the time he was transportation coordinator on Kansas City (1996) and props assistant on Cookie’s Fortune (1999), he was making features, TV spots and corporate image campaigns.

He’s not the only Altman who proved his cinema chops on Bob’s sets. Dana’s uncles, Bobby, Stephen and Matthew, served key camera, production design and art department roles on many of their father’s films. Aside from a few forays in her father’s early films, including a bit part in his first feature, The Delinquents, Dana said his mother “was never really in the machine of film” like her brothers were.

Although he bears the weighty name now, Altman broke into the business on his own, under his birth surname of Johnson, not by any association with his grandpa. He apprenticed as an editor at Universal Pictures in ‘89-‘90, helping cut such series as Columbo. Then, against Bob’s advice, he left L.A. for Nebraska, just a week short of getting his Editor’s Guild card. Why? Ironically, Dana said he was disgruntled with the old boys network that determined who advanced and who didn’t in Hollywood. He only changed his name to Altman after moving back to Nebraska and starting a family. He and his wife Deanna Lee Altman are the parents of six children.

He said leaving L.A. for Nebraska is “the best decision I’ve ever made.” He did heed his grandfather’s advice when Bob urged him to change his name.

“Bob and Kathryn called and said, ‘You should give your family some heritage.’ I fought it because it’s the same thing I hated about L.A. I was incredibly frustrated watching people come into the system based on who they were, not what they could do,” Altman said. “It’s about who you know and what your last name is, not how skilled you are. It was hard for me out there seeing how it operated and now people got in the game. That’s always been the fight…that I want to be good regardless of what my last name is. That’s the most important thing.”

Dana Altman

It’s not that he isn’t proud of the Altman tie. He just doesn’t want people to think it opened doors for him. “I mean, I enjoy it,” he said. “I don’t take anything away from it. But when people ask me — How’s your work influenced by Robert Altman?  - I don’t know. I may be blood from my mother’s side, but does that make me a great artist? Does that make somebody talented? I don’t think so. I see kids that have no family heritage in the business, and they’re better than I am.”

In the end, Altman decided to claim the name, he said, “as a way of giving my kids some lineage, some heritage, some history.”

Besides Omaha (the movie), Altman’s produced the horror flick Kolobos and the comedy Out of Omaha. He’s directed one feature, The Private Public, and hopes to “get around” to another. One time he wished he’d followed Bob’s counsel was when he put his own money on the line for Private Public, something he was told never to do. The film failed to recoup his own and other investors’ capital.

In addition to doing work for clients like the Metropolitan Utilities District, he’s preparing to produce the much-anticipated feature debut of Omahan Nik Fackler, the wunderkind director of acclaimed dramatic shorts and music videos. Just as Bob took young filmmakers under his wing, Dana’s known to do the same. Altman’s uncles Bobby and Stephen may fill director of photography and production design roles, respectively, on Fackler’s film, entitled Lovely Still.

As a kid living in Fremont Altman never really harbored dreams of a life in cinema. It was all too far removed. Not that he hadn’t been exposed to that world. In the conference room of his spacious North Sea Films studios at 2626 Harney Street, Altman shows you a framed photograph taken on the set of M*A*S*H (1970), filmed in California. The outdoor image shows his grandfather, resplendent in big game hunter attire, signature beard and mustache intact, standing and holding him at age 3, his mother beside them and actor Michael Murphy, a regular Robert Altman stock player, beside her. A tent is visible in the background.

The first set he actually remembers being on is that of McCabe. The pervasive mud and miserable conditions of that Vancouver shoot are what he recalls, along with feeding goats and being repeatedly warned to stay off the rickety bridge where Keith Carradine meets his demise in the film.

But it wasn’t until a quirk of fate that Altman got his first real taste of film work. It was 1980 and his baby brother, Wesley Ivan Hurt, had been born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, pinching a nerve that paralyzed the right side of his lip into a kind of whimsical scowl, making him the perfect choice to portray the infant Sweet Pea in Bob’s film version of the “Popeye” comic strip. That’s how it is Altman went with Wesley and Mom to Malta for the making of Popeye. Once there, Dana found himself enlisted in the ranks of crew supporting the sprawling shoot, “as there was always stuff to do. That’s how I got into props,” he said.

Admittedly, the Felliniesque Popeye marked “a weird one to step into” for a first film crew gig. “Yeah, a musical Popeye,” he said with a wry grin. For starters, “it was a really big, big shoot. It was really far away, in foreign territory, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley, Ray Walston and all these fantastic people. You were kind of transported to this weird little place isolated from the world. That’s all you’re exposed to the whole time. So for ten months, you know, you’re living the movie. We basically shot it all in this cove. Every single piece you see was constructed for the purpose of the movie. Not one item happened to be there. When we showed up it was a big rocky cove and when we left it was a city – a city of Popeye.”

He said he fell in love with the whole apparatus of filmmaking “once I was there and I saw the process…building the sets, sinking ships out in the cove, building ships that had boxing rings on the decks. I mean, it was just insane.”

Seeing it all come together under the attentive eye of Bob, the maestro and orchestrater of all this “controlled chaos,” captivated Altman.

Robert Altman

“How his discussions – hands pointing in all directions – in one brief moment could address lighting, movement, emotion, color, timing and whatever else needed to be addressed and corrected…” he said. “He would finish the next shot, go into another extraordinary litany of problems to be attended to. Over and over again this process would occur until his hands would fly into the air and he would yell, ‘That’s great…couldn’t be better.’ Watching, listening and trying to comprehend how this was possible is what initially got me thinking about filmmaking as a career.”

Fast forward 15 years, to Altman in his late 20s-early 30s and already a film veteran. He then sought out the opportunity to work with his grandfather. “I knew I wanted to work with him and so I just threw my name in the hat and said, ‘If there’s any task you can’t find the person for, then let me take a shot at it.’” His chance came onKansas City, Bob’s Great Depression-era, jazz-themed crime riff shot in Kansas City, Mo., where the director grew up the son of an insurance tycoon and got his start in industrial films. “Bob put me in charge of coordinating a $300,000 budget to maneuver and find and build all of the picture’s vehicles. I think we ended up with 250 pre-1934 vehicles. Sedans, taxis, police cars, ice trucks, motorcycles.”

He was given the same freedom his grandfather was known to give all collaborators.

“It was hands off. I loved that because it was truly a responsibility that was tasked to me and it was pass or fail, and failure was not an option,” Altman said. “So it was my opportunity. I would get it done and get it done well.”

His passing grade led him to Cookie’s Fortune, shot in Holly Springs, Miss., where he handled all the “personal effects” for characters, including finding an assortment of pipes, 60 in all, for the eccentric matriarch of the title played by Patricia Neal.

“It was my opportunity to learn what kinds of things were important to Bob from a creative standpoint of the scene and the surroundings that make up the characters,” he said. “Every item we were tasked to find and provide and have on set and in position in the scene meant something.”

As Altman found, any prop, even if unseen on screen, adds nuance to a shot. Without such details, he said, “something’s missing, something’s not right.”

Working on Kansas City and Cookie’s Fortune he watched with a more discerning eye how Bob directed. How he was “kind and cool, relaxed and confident, prepared to – explore.” Bob’s mastery of the set, the shot, the scene, never ceased to amaze him. His letting actors play and be the authors of the scenes. There were rehearsals, Altman said, but once cameras rolled Bob didn’t intrude. He respected actors and gave them great freedom to create.

“He would allow things to develop. He had a huge amount of confidence,” said Altman, who recalled how “Bob once said as were sitting next to the video assist, ‘I just let them (actors) do this part. My job’s over. I put all the pieces together. Now I just get to watch it unfold.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t act. Just be real.’ It’s like, Man, he has all this opportunity to really define what it is and that’s when he stood back to watch it unfold,” Yet there’s a reality to what ended up on screen, with the interplay of dialogue and people’s reactions and movements. I think that’s what amazes people. What he did in that string with The Player and Short Cuts, it freaked the system out how real it could be.”

Bob used his camera as an extension of his or the viewer’s eye, subtly scanning the action, letting shots plays out in extended takes. Dana said it was up to the camera operator to capture it all. It makes for a fluid, intimate style that can be uneasy for how invasive this sense of peering-in at private moments gets. “It’s very voyeuristic, that’s what it is,” Altman said. “It’s kind of like he lulls you in and allows you inside. And I think that’s exactly how it was for him when he sat in front of a monitor.”

For Dana, like many others, watching a Robert Altman film is akin to watching a play. “You always feel like the whole scene is right there in front of you,” he said. “He almost takes the shot exactly where my brain would want to go.”

Within this richly textured mis en scene, there’s the sense, as in life, anything or nothing at all may transpire. “In almost everybody else’s work you can kind of feel this structure – that there’s a written page somewhere and it’s either going to go here or here,” Altman said. “But with Bob I’ve never been able to guess what’s next. What the next line of dialogue or the next plot line is. You never get bored. Your brain’s on fire being a voyeur in this world. It’s life unscripted.”

When crewing, there were no long talks about theory or technique. “When I was working with him, it was work,” Altman said. “I was there to facilitate what he needed. Certainly he would define reasons why. Like our discussions about what type of vehicles or how many vehicles outside Union Station during Kansas City. He showed me photographs. ‘Here, look at these pictures, this is what I want to see.’”

Away from the set, conversations rarely turned to film. “We skipped over all that stuff,” he said. At moments like these it was a grandson and a grandfather talking about life, “just hanging out,” Altman said. “It was more personal.” Always, he said, Bob was easy to be around. “No matter what, he was accessible. I never found him to be this unattainable, untouchable great artist. I always saw him, you know, as grandpa.” It was the same way with “the great talents” he got to know on Bob’s sets, including Glenn Close and Julianne Moore — “the neatest lady I’ve ever met.” He said they didn’t talk shop, but about family. Or, in the case of Chris O’Donnell, they talked golf while Altman fruitlessly tried beating the actor on the links.

His grandfather’s sets were warm and personable. “He always created that environment where he was good to be around and you sensed the people he gathered were all together…like a family. They were cool. I’ve sensed that on Alexander’s (Payne) films as well. On other films I’ve been on it’s more of a job.”

Altman realizes he “was in a position other people would love to be in.” A part of him rues not talking more film with Bob. “It’s kind of like I missed out,” he said. “He was such a fantastic, world renowned figure who it’s rare to be in the company of.” But always, he said, duty and family trumped career or professional conceit.

One of the last times he saw Bob was in 2005, as the director wrapped A Prairie Home Companion in Vancouver, where 35 years earlier little Dana was sloshing through mud in galoshes on the set of McCabe. Altman’s wife and kids made the trip up north to visit grandpa on Prairie Home. Once again, family came first.

He said his grandfather was touched by the lifetime Oscar he accepted at the 2006 Academy Awards: “He told me he was very excited about getting an Oscar for the volume of his work rather than just one (film).” Altman was delighted the Academy saw fit to honor his grandfather “before it was too late.”

When news of his death reached him, Altman said there was little time to react as “it all happened quickly. No time really for a service. I took my wife and five of our six kids and it was just us family getting together for Thanksgiving at his house in Malibu right over the ocean. Some of us stood to speak our peace and say goodbye. I miss him already.”

NOTE: Dana Altman attended a February 20 memorial service for his grandfather at New York’s Majestic Theater. He plans to attend a second tribute on March 4 at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles. Robert Altman will be posthumously accorded  a lifetime achievement award at the Spirit Awards on Feb. 24; in addition, the awards committee has created the Robert Altman Award, to be given out beginning next year to a film’s director and ensemble cast.

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


My most recent 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, an Omaha-shot indie feature starring Oscar winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. The pic is finally getting a general national release after having picked up a slew of admirers and awards at select screenings, most recently 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.

Don’t be surprised if Landau and/or Burstyn net Oscar nominations for their superb performances. This piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Omaha is home to some serious filmmaking talent.  Payne and Fackler are at the leading edge of a homegrown cinema movement here, and more figures are sure to emerge.

Ellen Burstyn and Nik Fackler discussing a Christmas prop on the set of Lovely, Still 

 

 

Nik Fackler, the Film Dude Establishes Himself  a Major New Cinema Figure with His ‘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.

 

 

Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau

 

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.

Meanwhile, the Film Dude returns from the Sao Palo (Brazil) Film Festival in time for this weekend’s Lovely events. Then it’s back to imagining and waiting tables. Tickets for Friday’s event are $10 and available at www.marcustheatres.com or the cinema’s box office, 3201 Farnam St.

Filmmaker Nik Fackler’s Magic Realism Reaches the Big Screen in ‘Lovely, Still’


This is the second of three articles I’ve written thus far on rising young filmmaker Nik Fackler, whose first feature film, Lovely, Still marks him a serious talent to be watched.  I expect to be writing about him for years to come.  The piece that follows, which appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), charts his film first making a bit of a splash at the Toronto Film Festival. New footage was actually shot after those screenings up north and the film reedited.  It has since played a number of festivals in the U.S. and abroad, generally to quite warm reviews.

NOTE: Lovely, Still is having its national release in September and October.  Look for it at a theater near you, and don’t be surprised if one or both of its stars, Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, nab Oscar nominations for their superb performances.

 

 

Filmmaker Nik Fackler’s Magic Realism Reaches the Big Screen in ‘Lovely, Still’

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Lovely, Still’s
selection for the Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery Program confirms the promise of its writer-director, Nik Fackler, is being fulfilled.

His romantic, melancholic debut feature shot last fall in Omaha culminates the young visionary’s coming-of-age ascent; one that began with his arresting short films and transitioned to cinematic music videos for Saddle Creek Records’ artists.

All signs pointed to this moment. Getting the support of veteran producer Dana Altman. Landing a William Morris agent before age 20. Doing his wunderkind thing with those ambitious, artful shorts/videos. Attracting interest from Hollywood royalty in his Lovely script, whose first draft he wrote in his teens; then having two Oscar-winning legends, Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, agree to play the leads.

It’s off-the-hook stuff for anyone, much less somebody launching a feature career out of Omaha. Then consider he’s 24, entirely self-taught and harbors dreamy, idealistic notions about making art and overturning a system he says is “dying.”

In truth, he’s now part of the movie apparatus. Oh, he’s an indie spirit alright, dancing to a downbeat all his own. He retained creative control of Lovely, whose editing he had a close hand in. But now that he’s in-play with a commercial feature boasting above-the-title stars making its world premiere at a prestige fest, where its likely to garner a theatrical distribution deal, he’s poised to be a hot property.

We’re not talking sell-out but getting drawn further into the Hollywood sphere. Offers for studio projects may come if the film finds an audience or not. Fackler may or may not follow up with “a winner.” He may choose to remain off-the-grid, continuing to make small indie films in his own backyard. You get the sense he doesn’t much care as long as he gets to keep making films. His way.

 

 

Ellen Burstyn with Nik Fackler on the set of Lovely, Still

 

 

Making Lovely confirmed that. He recently looked back on the experience -with a mixture of wonder, appreciation, chagrin and recognition, the way any young man would after the whirlwind of his first great love subsides.

After living with this project for years – writing, rewriting, shooting, editing, morphing, and now making its public debut – what does he think about it?

“I’m very happy with the film. It’s an odd little gem in my eyes. It really has evolved, like any good project will, into something completely different than I expected. It’s the most satisfying part of the whole process – trusting in the magic of creativity and the movement of energy,” he said.

A strong visualist, he’s pleased with Lovely’s look. “The colors in the film all turned out the way we wanted,” said Fackler. “Sean Kirby (director of photography) is brilliant.” For months Fackler worked with editor Doug Criser (Babel) in L.A. Only recently the film was locked in Seattle for color corrections, titles-effects. Then sound mixing, additional dialogue recording and mastering  was done in New York.

“I got to do some last minute cleanups and retouches, a rare opportunity I quickly jumped on. Nothing better then sitting with a film for months, being bugged to hell by a few problems, then given the chance to go fix those problems,” Fackler said.

Fackler, also a musician, thinks and talks about film in terms of beats. For him, it’s all about flow and pacing, improvising as he sees fit, yet never losing track of the whole composition. Much changed on set during the seven-week shoot.

“I’m a big changer of things, which will drive people crazy, but it has to happen sometimes because that’s the way art is. It becomes it’s own monster and then you just kind of gotta ride it. And once you change one thing it dominoes and you’ve got to change the way other things are shot.”

As Fackler found his rhythms, he said he often threw away the shot list, riffing new ones on the spot – both as a creative stimulus for himself and the project and as a practical solution to making his days.

“The first week was really following the shot list, blah, blah, and I was getting really bored and the next couple weeks was going off the shot list, doing stuff on the fly,” he said. “I mean, obviously some stuff I had planned out and didn’t want to go from. But with some of the dialogue scenes I shot them very loosely.”

He also indulged what he calls “special shots.” Hours spent setting up and filming highly “orchestrated” dollies meant cutting into the meat of the day, which forced him to resort to off-the-cuff, hand-held shots for other scenes. “I wouldn’t have enough time for anything nice.” Even though “it was pissing everybody off,” he said, “I wanted to get these special shots – they’re important. They describe me as a filmmaker and they’re right for the movie.”

Straying too far from an already short-production schedule makes crews nervous and he soon found himself reined-in by producer Lars Knudson. “He was like, ‘You’ve got to get back on the shot list because people don’t know what you’re shooting.’” Fackler complied but there were still times, by choice or necessity, when a single shot made do in place of multiple ones. An Old Market sequence slated for three days was truncated into one night. He needed more time.

Some of the biggest changes involved scenes where protagonist Robert Malone (Landau) slips off into fantasy or memory jags. Effects that were to have been achieved on a green screen were instead captured in the camera through imaginative lighting, art direction, camera moves, lens work and double exposures. “Old school stuff,” said Fackler. “I loved it.”

He said he made the call to nix much of the green screen work out of concern the film’s small budget would compromise the integrity of the effects. “It was too risky in my mind to do a big green screen shot that could end up looking like shit.”

An example of Fackler being open to discovery occurred when collaborators brought to his attention his obsession with doorways. That led him to using a door  – built by the crew — as a symbolic portal that pops up throughout the film, in all sorts of settings, from the middle of a field to a street. whenever Robert’s mind flits in and out of reality. Those scenes appear in varied hues that key off colors in the door’s stained-glass window.

Setting up a night shot on Lovely, Still

 

 

Perhaps the biggest change was to the ending. “The last shot of the film is completely different,” he said, than the American Beauty-like reverie -complete with rose petals falling over a prosaic street – he scripted and shot. He said that in capturing a separate, smaller shot for another scene, one with a more dour tone, inspiration struck that “this is the end of the film, not that other shot. I talked it through with the producers and the actors. I showed them how it was going to go. ‘Isn’t this a better ending shot for the film?’ Everyone agreed.”

It went from being grand to simple – like how the film begins. “Now it’s a really gray, stark, static, quiet moment,” he said. Fackler said he tends to write in a big melodramatic style and then strips away or pulls back to get at the heart of things.

Part of this approach is staying in touch with the film’s internal rhythms.

“That’s what’s so fun about it,” he said. “That’s the magic. There’s a way the film wants to be made and you’ve got to listen to it. You just gotta go with it. If it needs to go in a certain way that’s completely different, I won’t deny it that. If I stuck locked into any one idea, that wouldn’t be fair. I wouldn’t be following the energy that’s leading me. I’m basically directing that energy. I follow it and then everyone follows me with it, and luckily everyone trusted me enough to do it.”

The experience of his first feature, he said, “was just a big learning curve. I’ve learned a huge part of it is adaptation. Adapting to the situation you’re given. There’s so many people involved and so little time that things have to change from the way they’re in your head. We coined the term ‘adapt and improve.’”

It’s also about embracing imperfections. “I love mistakes. I love when someone says the wrong line or a strange noise is made in the background. It makes the film more real to me. I tend to choose the takes that have mistakes in them,” he said. “It makes the film seem more human and not staged.”

Some gaffes can’t be kept. “You cut together a scene and say, ‘Shit! Why didn’t I a get a close up of that clock?’ We had a two-day reshoot up in New York to pick up some shots. All part of the process I suppose. Kinda fun. Something I don’t get to do as much in music videos.”

Editor Doug Criser worked alone in L.A. compiling an assembly before Fackler joined him in February. Fackler copped to secretly editing back in Omaha, saying, “Ideas come when I edit and I didn’t want to lose those ideas.” Together, the pair worked “scene by scene” through the film, making corrections and then Fackler finally got to watch the first cut. “Watching an assembly is just to hard,” he said.

A typical edit session went from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., with Criser at the Avid and Fackler on a couch. Reviewing scenes Fackler said, “I would kind of conduct. We have a language we use with each other. ‘Hey, could you take some heads off that shot?’ (remove a few frames from the beginning). Or, ‘move it to the right (forward) or left (backward).’ Or, ‘We need to finesse that sequence (it moves too slow).’ To more detailed things like, ’We need to add a beat there to build some tension.’ What’s so fascinating about cutting is you’re adding moments that weren’t there.”

He reports that a preview screening for the cast went well. “They really loved it.”

After working with Landau and Burstyn he has a deeper respect for the actor’s craft. He knows now he can work with old Hollywood pros. But he’s still not comfortable with the business-trumps-art L.A. scene.

“I don’t agree with how art is turned into a product so much out here. It’s depressing.”

Plans for an Omaha screening are pending.

Promising Writer-Director Nik Fackler Embraces His First Feature Film Experience

May 18, 2010 1 comment

 

 

I remember reading something about this wunderkind filmmaker in Omaha whose short films and music videos were all the rage. I finally met him and I was impressed by his passion and ambition. Then I read the screenplay for his first feature, Lovely, Still which he was then prepping, and its depth and imagination blew me away. Finally, I saw some of his short films and music videos, and they were much more accomplished than you would expect from a kid barely out of his teens and working on micro budgets.

The following story is my attempt at portraying someone I am convinced will be one of the world’s leading film directors in a short time, if he isnt already.  The story appeared in a truncated form in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as he was finishing production on Lovely, Still, his made in Omaha feature starring Oscar winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn.  The film had limited theatrical distribution in 2008-2009, but is finally get a general national release this year.  Everywhere it’s played it’s gotten good reviews and been well received by audiences.  I believe Fackler is well on his way to fulfilling the promise of greatness his work has shown almost from the start. And don’t be surprised if Landau and/or Burstyn pick up Oscar nominations for their superb performances.

 

Nik Fackler, left, with Dana Altman

 

 

Promising Writer-Director Nik Fackler Embraces His First Feature Film Experience

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

There’s something subversive about a 23-year-old coming out of the music video world to direct Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in a serious indie drama about the passion an elderly couple feel. A postmodern It’s a Wonderful Life.  As sweet as it is dark, Nik Fackler calls it “a fairy-tale, but told in the real world.”

Fackler is the most promising homegrown film talent Omaha’s produced since Alexander Payne. That’s a heavy comparison, but Fackler’s work has been turning heads for a half-dozen years. Whether his first feature is a fully-realized work or an unfulfilled promise remains to be seen. Will he have staying power? Nobody knows.

On the surface Lovely’s about dull, lonely, isolated Robert (Landau) finding love, for the first time, with worldly, vivacious Mary (Burstyn). She seemingly comes into his life from left field.

The subtext of the original story contains funny, hard, ironic realities dramatized in stark relief and in dreamlike scenes that remind one, on the page at least, of Tim Burton-Terry Gilliam phantasms. These light-dark interludes play off the confused mind of Robert, whose grasp of reality is fragile. The mystical montages will be shot inside and outside North Sea Films, an Omaha film-video production house.

North Sea founder/chairman Dana Altman, a Fackler mentor, is producing Lovely with 20-somethings Lars Knudson and Jay Van Hoy of New York-based Parts and Labor.

Lovely’s key crew – from director of photography Sean Kirby to production designer Stephen Altman – are Hollywood/indie veterans with the chops to pull off effects in-camera and on North Sea’s green screen.

The part of Robert demands Landau play a full gamut of emotions – love, desire, fear, anger, loneliness, confusion, joy, innocence, distrust, paranoia. Fackler said the “showcase role” is “very challenging.” Burstyn’s character must react to Robert’s wild swings; and her performance is tinged by the potent secret her character Mary keeps, and the delicate balance she maintains to preserve it.

Seldom have “seniors” been given such complex dimensions on film. Then there’s the much hushed-hushed hook or high concept the story turns on. This has to do with the secret, the well-intended ruse to preserve it, and ensuing fallout when the deception backfires with unforeseen consequences.

Now in its fourth week of production in and around his  hometown, Lovely could be a coming out party for Fackler. He previously made waves only in indie music circles. This $1.2 million-budgeted project with high cachet actors in Oscar-friendly roles could put him on a fast track to a major filmmaking career.

“The great thing about Lovely, Still is that it is sort of under the radar,” Knudson said. “Because Nik is in Omaha, not in L.A. or New York, people don’t really know who he is yet and I think that’s going to be really good for this film. It’s going to come out and hopefully just blow people away.”

Even though Fackler’s barely in his 20s, Lovely’s a long time in the making. He first wrote it in his teens. It came close to shooting in 2005, but financing wasn’t secured until this past year through New York investors Knudson and Van Hoy have a history with. Fackler’s waited five years and there were, Altman said, “crying times.”

“A lot of independent films I’ve produced have taken four-five years and it’s frustrating, it’s difficult,” said Knudson, whose Old Joy did well on the indie circuit. “You just never give up and then one day you make it. But I think Nik’s glad he’s doing it now and not two years ago. I think he’s ready now. Going through all the bad times has actually made him that much stronger. The timing is right.”

On location in mid-November Fackler expressed satisfaction  with how the crew  - a mix from L.A. and Omaha – were  meshing. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength – that’s why  it’s turning out great,” he said. Still, it’s Fackler’s 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 said, “I made a  bunch of mistakes the first day I won’t make again…”

Vision outweighs inexperience, Kirby said. “I think he’s a visualist,” said Kirby. “One of the great things about film is that it really is a kind of age-less art form. The vision is something that is outside of age, and he has a vision we’re all trying to support. That’s why we’re all here”

 

 

 

 

Fackler’s passion and vision sold Knudson and Van Hoy on him. It’s what sold Fackler to Saddle Creek Records artists, for whom he’s made music videos, and to the William Morris Agency, which represents him.

“Nik is one of those guys we fell in love with after seeing his  stuff,” said Knudson, whose business partner, Van Hoy, is currently producing the feature Going Underground in New York. Altman, who long ago spotted Fackler’s talent, spent four years packaging Lovely before finding the right fit in Knudson and Van Hoy, who learned the business under Scott Rudin and now produce indie work  by writer-directors with a strong personal vision. “Lars and Jay came at the perfect time. The film is set up  now in the best possible scenario… because this is what independent film is,” Altman said. Fackler retains ultimate  “creative control” on Lovely, said Knudson, adding, “that’s a rare thing.”

“The thing that’s cool about this is how much control I have over it and I think filmmaking should be that way,” Fackler said. “I think any artist should be in complete control of their project.”

Last winter Fackler expressed frustration when plans to shoot Lovely were again delayed. He even toyed with the idea of, in  the interim, making a down-and-dirty thriller with a grindhouse  gimmick, but then Lovely finally got the go-ahead. Even then, Lovely almost didn’t get made here. Nebraska’s lack of incentive earmarks for film production gave investors pause  before they relented.

The fact it took some time before the film came together turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The script’s undergone many  changes since Fackler first wrote it, reflecting his maturation from boy to man.

“I’ve been rewriting this script every year – driving people nuts with it – because I keep changing,” he said. ” I was a completely different person when I first wrote it at 18. I go back and read the first draft and I‚m like, ‘Oh, it’s sophomoric.’ You learn more, you experience more, you feel more – and you take advantage of that and then put that in your art. So it’s good it took five years to get this film made.”

Knudson said the script has been made stronger “with the help of a lot of different people.” Fackler said the final script does retain the fairy-tale quality he intended from the start: “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.”

“It starts really dark, so it will be shot really dark,” Fackler said. “Lots of shadows and blues. And then as it gets happier I want to literally change the color of the film. Like even the same locations change brightness and color ˜ they become fairy-taley – just to set a different tone. Then it gets darker than it was before and then gets kind of happy again before it ends in the real world.”

As far back as the shorts Jack and Jill and Mynoot Loss he’s explored the dark side. “I don’t know why it is for me that it’s so much easier to be dark than it is to be happy,” he said. “I haven’t had any problems. I had a great childhood -that’s why I’m actually like stuck in it. It’s like I don’t want to be a dark person but it’s in there, so I have to get it out somehow, and it breaks out in my art. Maybe it’s because I had people kill themselves around me. That was part of growing up.”

He refers to his late friend Erin, to whom Jack and Jill is dedicated. “She took her own life and it kind of stuck with me. I was 17,” he said. He put down what he felt in words. “Whenever I’m feeling really angry I can write it out of me. I think it’s  therapeutic. But also I use it as a creative tool. Like when I was writing Lovely, Still the emotions I was feeling in the relationship I was in I put into the characters.”

After years trying to get Lovely made, frustration nearly drove him to a big-budget studio deal to do a “creature feature” flick.

“I had the contract. I was seconds away from making money. Real money. Money I could buy a house with. But I had to follow my gut,” he said. “I had to stick to my guns. Just because I’m broke I can’t jeopardize the last four years. I owe it to myself.”

Another benefit of waiting was landing Burstyn and Landau. Burstyn, Best Actress Oscar-winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, has six Academy nominations. She co-directs the Actors Studio in New York. Landau, who goes back to the Studio’s heyday in the ’50s, when he and fellow student James Dean were fast friends, has taught acting for decades and directs the Actors Studio West. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ed Wood, one of his three Oscar nominations.

We’re talking actors old enough to be Fackler’s grandparents. Actors who’ve worked with icons — Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Bogdanavich, Friedkin, Coppola, Scorsese, Allen – Fackler only knows via Net Flix or dusty film books. But directing these 70-somethings doesn’t seem to phase him. That’s in keeping with his free spirit, one that won’t be shackled or censored, even around film royalty.

A Monday morning shoot at the French Cafe finds Fackler in sneakers, jeans, sweatshirt and whimsical Dr. Seuss stocking cap. He variously: grooves to some internal beat between  takes on set, swaying his tall, lithe body like a snake charmed into dance; hums-sings some song lick; skips between the open spaces in the dolly track on the floor; and affects a ridiculous Italian accent with Landau, who takes it up in kind, adding a mob edge to his mock dialect.

 

 

Martin Landau with Nik Fackler

 

 

Standing to watch a take unfold on a tiny monitor, Fackler rocks up and down, hands hung at his side, fingers twitching. As Landau-Burstyn complete the intimate dinner scene at the Cafe, a finely nuanced moment lit by candlelight and framed against a stained glass window, the filmmaker raises both arms overhead and, like a conductor, swoops his hands down with finality, declaring, “Cut!” He’s pleased.

The uninhibited, childlike quality of Fackler keeps his sets relatively loose.

“He’s very sort of ego-less,” Knudson said. “He’s just as excited talking to someone on the crew or to a random guy on the street as he is talking to Martin (Landau). He brings the same energy.”

There’s no mistaking how much is on the line with this project, however.

“Our budget is over a million dollars – that’s a lot of money to be giving a guy who just turned 23 and is directing his first feature,” Knudson said. “As a first-time director you have a lot against you already because you haven’t proven yourself at all. That’s a lot of pressure to put on him.”

Fackler doesn’t show it.

“If you’re going to be a good director you can’t ever be stressed out or ever be intimidated because you have like a whole crew and cast around you looking to you for what to do. You definitely can’t fold,” Fackler said.

That required exterior doesn’t rule out internal explosion, “which happens all the time,” he said.

He admits he was intimidated the first time he met Landau  and Burstyn, who sized him up. When the actors first expressed interest in the script, each took a meeting with the artist without a single credit to his name on his IMDB page. Who is this guy?

“It was really intimidating,” Fackler said of his meeting with 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 if he can trust me as a director, because I’m a young guy. He’s got to respect me to do what I say and I’ve got to show him  the respect he deserves. We’re from such different generations.”

The two hit it off. Knudson said Fackler “aced” a similar test with Burstyn in New York: “It’s a lot of pressure for a 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” that Fackler won over two artists of such caliber. “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.”

The fact Fackler attracted these heavyweights is proof “the kid,” as Landau refers to him, has the right stuff. That two veterans liked the story and its young creator enough to entrust him with directing the piece and them in it tells you there’s substance behind his slacker’s facade. That Fackler has been, in Landau’s words, “amenable” to notes he and Burstyn feed him in order to smooth “the bumps” in the script, shows the kid is no fool.

“What’s great about Nik, especially at this 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 confirmed the script owes much to the input of the lead actors.

Fackler said Landau made comments like, “‘I think this still sounds a little young in this area.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, let’s fix it.’ Definitely a collaborative effort. He was kind of a mentor for a month straight. He taught me stuff. I just took notes listening to him.”

The same with Burstyn, who honed in on “really simple, really small things,” Fackler said. “Like the opening line of the script got changed just a little bit because she thought it” contradicted the secret revealed near the end. “She wanted to make it even more obscure.”

With his long, cherubic face, piles of brown hair and pseudo-grunge wear, Fackler looks and sounds like the Generation Y child he is. One who became a filmmaker by just doing it. Gen Y is into affordable audio-video technologies that make music-film production accessible.

“Our generation is like the-do-it-yourself generation – you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Like, if you want to make a record, you can do that now where you couldn’t really do that years ago. The same with film. That’s the whole thing with digital, man. Anyone can make a film. Independent projects are so possible.”

Every project before Lovely was an exercise in stretching himself creatively.

“I kind of just kept setting goals. Each project had to be something completely different for me – a new experiment,” he said. “I get bored easily with stuff but filmmaking hasn’t got boring yet and that’s because there are infinite possibilities with what you can do. It’s an experimental art.

“There’s a solution to every problem that’s put in front of you, and 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.”

His Lovely crew is comprised in part by friends who go back with him on his many shorts and videos. They’ve been through production wars together, meaning they’re comfortable solving problems.

Lovely came out of this desire to explore new ground.

“I did a lot of shorts about young people,” he said. “I didn’t want to get stuck being a young director doing films about young people.”

Enter Shirley’s Diner, a classic Millard eatery owned and operated by his artistically-inclined parents, Denise and Doug Fackler. It’s where Nik researched Lovely, hanging out with older patrons, getting a sense for “what it’s like to be a human at that age,” he said. “I talked with a lot of older people. That helped. I figured out a way he [Robert] words things. He’s based on a real person I talked to at the diner. He’s a bagger at a grocery store who doesn’t talk to anyone. Everyone kind of treats him like a kid. They all take care of him. That’s kind of Robert. He does’‚t have a lot of experience having feelings. He’s really awkward. He doesn’t like to talk to people. He’s scared of interaction. He’s not happy, he’s not sad – he’s kind of neutral.”

 

 

Shirley’s Diner

 

 

The diner Nik’s family owns and operates and that he often worked at and found inspiration at for his films

Creativity is a family thing with the Facklers. “Art was always just kind  of around,” he said. “It was in front of me, it was normal, so I  guess I just kind of fell into it that way.” When not immersed in video games, he wrote by himself or as part of a family activity. “That was just fun stuff we did. It would be like, ‘Let’s write a book tonight,’” he said. Acting, staging, later filming, his own scenarios became playtime.

Both his parents play music. Doug also makes photographs and Denise writes, including a book-in-progress that tells the stories of people who venture through the diner, where Nik worked as recently as last summer. “My mom’s under the firm belief, and I agree with her, that everyone has a story,” Nik said. “I mean, everyone’s interesting. That’s what’s cool about the diner – you have an unlimited amount of characters you can learn from.”

Fackler didn’t formally study cinema, or even attend college, although he landed admittance to the Los Angeles Film School at 16. He chose instead to forego commercial influences.

“That would have sucked, you know, directing Scary Movie V or something. Well, who knows what would have happened. All I know is I would have heard the same thing that a roomful of people would have learned. I don’t want to be taught an art. I want to like fall into an art and just let it happen. It’s an adventure, it’s an experience – each new thing.”

“I really want to try to be different. Every generation wants to do that and that’s why things change. So I just want to make sure I’m not rehashing the past.”

Fackler is intrigued with the idea of eliciting new emotions through his art. “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…”

Except for brief forays in L.A. Fackler developed his craft right here. He began making short films at Millard West, along the way finding a mentor in Altman. With Altman’s help, Fackler graduated from low-end to high-end film-video production and became a much-in-demand director for Saddle Creek artists, among them, Conor Oberst, who’s scoring Lovely.

About that comparison with Payne. They followed quite different paths to their first feature films. Payne graduated Stanford before going to film school at UCLA, where he directed a thesis project that got him a studio deal. Fackler’s thesis projects are the shorts/music videos he dreamed up and made.

Despite a development deal, nearly a decade passed before Payne put together his first feature, Citizen Ruth. In the interim he wrote and directed shorts for the Playboy Channel. By the time he made Ruth Payne was in his mid-30s. Fackler is that rare animal who’s gone right from homemade, no-budget work to a substantial indie feature with a dream cast. He’s arrived, by a self-made route, at the same point Payne reached with Ruth, only 12 years earlier.

As a filmmaker, Fackler emphasizes the influence of his background in music, as a writer and musician in Family Radio.

“Music creates images. It totally does. I’ve been at points where I made the characters argue just because a song I was playing started getting more intense,” Fackler said. “The music writes it for me. That’s the same with editing. When I’m editing I like to put a song down online and edit to it. Music is very, very important. Film has a rhythm it cuts to and falls to.”

Fackler wants to make more films in Omaha, and is avoiding the Hollywood glam machine. He wants to make his next film from a fantasy script he and Matt Brown co-wrote. “It’s going to be a bigger budget” show, so if Lovely, Still does well I think I can get a studio to trust me – if I want to go with a studio. I don’t really care either way as long as they let me do what I want.”

“I’m not very snobby about film,” he said. “Like I know how it works. It’s a business just like anything else. The thing is just doing it, and if you can manipulate the business and still keep it art, then go for it.”

He and a friend are pitching an animated television series to studios. There is high interest.

Meanwhile, the producers who have his back on Lovely, Still 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,” Knudson said.


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