Tag Archives: About Schmidt

The Man Who Invented the College Football Playoff

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are scripts,but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation. It’s improv. You get into character and run with it.

Larry Culpepper is either delusional or a consummate bullshitter, claiming, among other whoppers, that he created the College Football Playoff. He is raucous, chippy, and self-absorbed. His hair, shirt, visor, and flip-up glasses scream 1976. He’s a guy you’d buy a pop from, but likely shy away from having a beer with.

But Culpepper, the fictional character brought to life by actor/improv pro Jim Connor, is an increasingly beloved traveling minstrel who now transcends the Dr. Pepper brand he was created to peddle. Three years after his birth in an ad campaign with a potentially short leash, Culpepper now is mobbed by fans during live appearances; is part of a 10-part, football-season-long ad series; is the face of Dr. Pepper’s $35 million sponsorship of the College Football Playoff; and, increasingly, is a media darling beyond the confines of paid advertising slots.

For marketing purposes, Culpepper is from nowhere in particular. But in late August, Culpepper appeared on ESPN’s College Football Live and was asked to give his prediction for the playoff’s final four teams. His answer: Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Nebraska (fresh off their losing season).

“Nebraska?” One commentator scoffed, before asking a cohort, “Is he from Nebraska or something?”

larryculpepper2Culpepper isn’t, but Connor is. For the Omaha native and Husker fan, that moment on ESPN illuminates why he has enjoyed playing Culpepper so much. “There are scripts, but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation,” Connor says during a call from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s improv. You get into character and run with it. It’s a great time.”

Connor, the youngest of seven children (“which explains my personality right there,” he says), attended Creighton Prep, where, along with classmate Alexander Payne, he performed with the school’s improv acting troupe. He remembers one gig in particular that fueled his passion for the rush and satisfaction of successfully winging it for a crowd. “It was for a local service group,” he says. “We did some silly birthing scene, and the women in the group—you know, who had some experience with such a thing—really had a good time with it. It’s so cool when you connect with an audience.”

Connor was a gifted ham and public speaker. He served as vice president of the student council at Prep, wrote and acted in pep rally skits, and even placed first place for Humorous Interpretation at the National Forensic League’s National Speech Tournament in Minnesota.

After what he described as a “difficult” freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (“it just wasn’t for me”), he transferred to Saint John’s University in Minnesota. After college, he moved to Boston and worked as a carpenter while performing in theater and short films, then moved to Denver to pursue his MFA in acting at the famed National Theatre Conservatory.

The goal, “was never to get famous,” he says. “I just wanted to make a living being an actor. I wanted acting to be my full-time job.”

A dream of tens of thousands who have moved to Los Angeles. And while at 54, Connor is no household name, he has succeeded at stringing together enough commercials and small parts to make acting his career.

Besides nearly 150 commercials, his film credits include Watchmen, Meet Dave, Blades of Glory, The Onion Movie, Home Invasion, and Horrible Bosses 2. Alexander Payne asked his old friend to give the drunken wedding-reception toast in About Schmidt.

He also had numerous recurring roles in television comedies such as Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs, and The King of Queens.

In 2014, Connor and about 500 other actors auditioned for the role of the Dr. Pepper concessionaire in a national ad campaign targeting college football fans. Actors were given latitude to define the character and riff. Connor created an amalgam of “a lot of people I’ve known” to create Culpepper, a loud, proud, gregarious huckster who seems to actually believe—in the face of constantly presented information to the contrary—that he created the four-team college football playoff system.

For all of Culpepper’s failings, he’s also affable, wide-eyed, and childlike in his zeal for the job and the game, appealingly un-self-aware, and extremely clever. “Larry is a real guy, he’s a smart guy,” Connor says. “He’s just got some unusual ideas sometimes.”

larryculpepper1Among myriad other reasons why he claimed the Cornhuskers would make the playoffs: “Nebraska runs that classic passive-aggressive offense,” he told the ESPN crew. “They’re playin’ real nice, and then you’re like a puddle on the 50-yard line.”

It was inspired nonsense, which is the foundation to good improv, which is what Connor would love to spend the rest of his career getting paid a living wage to do.

Indeed, as Culpepper increasingly becomes a star beyond the confines of college-game broadcasts, as Dr. Pepper continues to expand the ad campaign (Connor’s character is now essentially the spokesman in football matters for the company, which AdWeek magazine estimated paid at least $35 million to be a “championship partner” in the College Football Playoff).

He is hoping to land more significant movie and television roles, especially in one of the increasing number of loosely scripted, improv-heavy comedies.

“I’m not going to get cast for scripted stuff in front of a studio audience,” he says. “That’s not what I’m built for.  Shows like Parks and Recreation—where you have space to work more freely with a talented group—that’s where I belong. That’s where I love to be.”

Visit larryculpepper.com for more information.

Location Scout and Producer Jamie Vesay

October 11, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When it comes to shooting video, Jamie Vesay of Omaha is a handler, facilitator, fixer, procurer, and—as his LinkedIn site puts it—“minutia wrangler” and “chaos killer.” He works on television commercials, music videos, and feature films. His location scout credits include Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Downsizing.

Whether doing logistics or scouting locations, Vesay says he is “a creative collaborator” helping filmmakers “realize their vision.” He also aspires to make his own films from scripts and stories he’s writing.

The Pottsville, Pennsylvania, native worked odd jobs back East when he got an interview for the special effects (FX) crew on a 1989 Baltimore film shoot. Vesay’s experience as a machinist provided the fabrication skills needed in the FX profession. That first gig came on Barry Levinson’s major studio project, Avalon.

More FX feature jobs followed, as did a move to Los Angeles, before the work dried up and he relocated to Omaha. His talents made him in-demand on shoots. He added location scouting to his repertoire on projects near and far. Payne’s frequent location manager, John Latenser V, got Vesay day work on About Schmidt. But it wasn’t until Nebraska that Vesay worked extensively with Payne. Latenser couldn’t join the project at the start, so Vesay took the reins.

“You have to have that ability to bob and weave, change and adapt to the director you’re working with. Alexander is so smart about life, let alone the industry. At his core, he’s a guy who will say to you, ‘What do you think?’ And he’s sincere–he wants to know what you think.”

-Jamie Vesay

Vesay broke down the script’s locations. Having scoured the state for years, he had mental and digital files of countless sites. Since the story revolved around a road trip by father-son protagonists Woody and David, an excursion was in order. Payne, production designer Dennis Washington, and Vesay made the Billings, Montana, to eastern Nebraska trek themselves in an SUV. With steering wheel in one hand, 35-millimeter camera in the other, and legal notepad and pen on his lap, Vesay documented possible locations they came upon. Everyone voiced an opinion.

“My goal is to present options to the director,” Vesay says. “Many things we’ll drive by, Alexander will say, ‘OK, slow down, stop the car–I want to look at this.’ Sometimes you let him discover it. Other times you guide him. As I’m presenting the options, he’s seeing what’s available and saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s that.’ He’s a rare filmmaker willing to change with what’s available and use a location different from his original vision.”

The Nebraska script called for a Wyoming truck stop but Payne didn’t like any. With the SUV’s gas tank nearing empty. Vesay pulled into a combo gas station, bait-tackle shop, and bar that Payne loved. On Downsizing, Payne rejected South Omaha duplexes for one of his old haunts, Dundee.

“You have to have that ability to bob and weave, change and adapt to the director you’re working with,” he says. “Alexander is so smart about life, let alone the industry. At his core, he’s a guy who will say to you, ‘What do you think?’ And he’s sincere–he wants to know what you think.”

Vesay found the abandoned farmhouse the family visits in Nebraska. Payne called it “perfect.”

Instinct and experience help Vesay find things. Besides, he says, “I know where they’re hiding.”

A location’s look might be right, but it must also safely accommodate cast and crew. Access, sight lines, and noise are other considerations.

Choosing locations is just the start. Protocols require filmmakers to secure signed permission from property owners. During production Vesay does owner relations.

Looking to the future, Vesay urges the state to do more to attract film projects that provide steady work to local professionals.

Visit jamievesay.com for more information.

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Boiling Point

August 14, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.

I love how isolated I am in downtown Omaha in a parking lot.”

Jill Benz says this from the second floor of her Little Italy home, trees dappling the light through every window. Standing there with her, I can’t disagree that, for a few seconds, I also forgot I am, essentially, at the back end of the Amtrak parking lot.

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(“After three days, you don’t hear the trains,” Benz says.)

Sure, there are trains; and on the west side of the building there’s a 200-foot smokestack that tells the first chapter of the building’s story as a steam power plant for Burlington Station and other buildings in the area. But today, that Burlington-branded stack is the backbone of a waterfall that cascades from five different areas, and the sound of falling water, plus the insulation from the trees around the property, do produce an effect more bucolic than industrial.

That’s not to say Benz’s Burlington isn’t urban, or distinctly Omahan.

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The exposed brick walls of the main living area show photos of old Omaha—weathered images of buildings that no longer exist—along with an old Summer Arts Festival poster.  A thick book detailing 1894 Omaha and South Omaha history perches on a table. On the first level in an open kitchen and entertaining space are old backdrops from the 6 p.m. news—”Channel 7, I think,” Benz says. Back upstairs, a show-stopping white leather banquette hugs the whole length of the living area—its bones are from the old Grandmother’s restaurant at 90th and Dodge streets. And there’s Benz herself, an active member of the Little Italy neighborhood association and a kind of local historian, telling the stories of each part of the history of her home—and her hometown—as we walk.

So, sure, Benz’s home might not feel like it’s in downtown Omaha (in a parking lot)—but it does feel like Omaha.

Jill Benz 4“I found the listing on Trulia,” Benz says. She left Omaha in the 2000s for Connecticut, where her daughter lives. Benz remarried there and established an interior design business. Then, a few years ago, her husband passed away.

Back in Omaha, her mother fell ill. Benz returned.

JillBenz3She looked at a place on the water that was bigger than she needed before she found the Burlington building. It had been on the market for a while—a friend of hers considered buying it himself. She called him, told him she was interested, and he got her in to see it.

“Then I dreamed about it, which has always been a sign for me,” Benz says. “The next day, we started the deal, and by the middle of the afternoon, I got it.”

She didn’t tell her other family members—specifically her older brother—until a month and a half after the deal closed.

“My older brother has a different kind of brain than I do,” Benz says. “There were no furnace ducts or air-conditioning or kitchen. He asked me about all the things the building didn’t have.”

It has all of those things now—most notably the kitchen, on the entry level, designed in an open format with an island workspace. A lit peace sign hangs over the wall-oriented work area, and the whole thing stands adjacent to a garage door that opens to one side of the patio. Entertainment space both indoors and out boasts plenty of tables and stackable seating; outside, gas and wood fire pits stand back from brick walkways.

The second floor living space is decorated in bright blue and white, with graphic Greek- and Moroccan-inspired prints mixed with mid-century chairs and metal and glass tables. The Grandmother’s banquette plays against streamlined grey velvet sofas and tulip armchairs.

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“I picked things I liked,” Benz said. “I went classic modern. I thought it would work.”

A white metal spiral staircase leads from the second floor to the third and fourth floors, where Benz’s bold print choices continue. The fourth-floor space has a cozy seating area with more modern leather chairs.

The building’s roof offers a view of downtown Omaha. A raised, framed structure houses a few outdoor sofas; curtains can be let loose to give the space privacy.

Benz said the floors inside the building’s steel walls are heated now, though she’s tried to be as energy-efficient as possible. The building’s only enclosed area houses a geothermal heating and air-conditiong unit—a kind of new-era nod, perhaps, to the building’s past life.

“It’s such an unusual building,” Benz says. “It’s taken a while to get it right. I do love it. It takes a different kind of a person to live in this kind of a place. It’s such an adventure.”

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Drive-By Delight

April 1, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Alexander Payne’s new Oscar-nominated film Nebraska is stirring the pot in his home state the way his last film made here, About Schmidt, did in 2002.

That earlier project’s superstar lead, Jack Nicholson, naturally dominated media coverage. Nicholson’s character, the dour Warren Schmidt, lived in the Dundee home at 5402 Izard St. Bess Ogborn owned the house during filming, but the Jill and Mike Bydalek family moved into the home in mid-2003.

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“Even years after the movie people would drive by really slow,” says Jill. “Tour buses would pull up. There were people getting out and taking pictures.”

“Every time Payne has a successful movie there’ll be people that show an interest in the house,” says Mike, who practices technology law for Kutak Rock. “The guy has a following. Random people visiting Omaha will, on their way to the airport, detour and drive by.”

The couple, whose children Grace and Jack grew up there, fully expects the same to happen should Nebraska fare well come Oscar time.

“And it’s not just here, it’s a half dozen other places around town,” Mike says, referring to the favorite Midtown spots the filmmaker made part of his Omaha trilogy (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt).

In a city with few degrees of separation, the Bydaleks claim a connection to another Omaha Payne house. Grace attended a nearby home daycare that served as the residence of the family friend Matthew Broderick’s character hits on in Election.

But because it’s so closely associated with Nicholson’s potent cinema legacy, few other Omaha movie locations have the iconic pull as does the Izard Street house. To capitalize on this intrigue the Omaha YWCA (now the Women’s Center for Advancement) held a Home for the Holidays fundraiser at the three-story, red brick Colonial constructed in 1923.

A largely untouched interior made it the right fit when the filmmaker, location manager John Latenser V, and production designer Jane Stewart scouted it.”We’d searched for the ‘Schmidt House’ for quite some time,” says Latenser, who comes from a long line of architects that designed enduring Omaha public structures. “We knew we wanted Warren Schmidt to live in the Dundee neighborhood. We had scouted nearly 50 houses there, but nearly every one had updated-upgraded interiors. We were looking for a house that had not been updated.”

He says as soon as the team entered the home and saw its vintage wallpaper and original kitchen they knew they’d found the one.

“It was that perfect.”

Bess Ogborn’s daughter, Susan Ogborn, president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Heartland, was there for much of the shoot. She says her family “thoroughly enjoyed the experience” of their house becoming a movie artifact. Her folks moved there in 1964. After the death of her father in 1967, her widowed mother hung onto the place.

“Mother redecorated it in 1971, and other than basic maintenance, that was the way the filmmakers found it. But she would want you to know they moved her furniture out and used set furniture, and that her house was never that dirty or gloomy as it was in the movie. I don’t think she regretted letting them use her home at all. Seeing the house in the film didn’t seem strange, but walking through that set was very odd.”

The Bydaleks removed the wallpaper, redid the kitchen, and made many more renovations while retaining the five-bedroom home’s original integrity.

“It’s a great house,” says Mike. “It’s just as simple as can be, and that’s kind of nice.”

“They don’t make these houses anymore,” says Julie.

The Bydaleks know it will always link them to a slice of pop culture.

“It’s kind of fun to say we live in the About Schmidt house,” says Mike.

As things worked out, the Bydaleks’ daughter, Grace, 18, became the family’s own resident movie star. Acting on stage since childhood, she’s done voice-over work for animated television series, and she portrayed the title role in the Omaha-made film For Love of Amy (2009). During a Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh) theater camp, she says she used the Schmidt tie “as my fun fact during my dorm floor ice-breaker,” adding, “People were impressed a girl from Omaha would have a connection with the movies.”

As for Jack, 15, he says “it’s cool as a movie buff to live in a house made famous” by a popular film and its legendary star.

Leo Adam Biga is the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” Read more of his work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.