Tag Archives: Ben Affleck

The Return of the Midnight Movies

May 25, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Let’s respect our inverted pyramid and get this out of the way: 4925 Dodge St., née the Dundee Theater, will once again play movies at midnight. They will be regular affairs, maybe/maybe not weekly, and they will be appropriately subversive.

But they’re not going to attempt to recreate the showings that took place there every weekend from 2000 till 2013, when the theater “closed for renovations” (but everyone sort of understood that was that).

It’s probably for the best.

Because part of what made those midnight shows great, let’s admit, was that they took place in that time between cars and bars: when a generation of millennials learned the world was their oyster, when they were amenable to going anywhere, but piddling few places would let them in.

Even now, most theaters’ “late” showings start before 11 p.m., the same time it becomes illegal to step foot in city parks. Come 11:30 p.m., unless there’s a concert somewhere, your options are a lone donut shop and a slew of diner chains, convenience stores, and Wal-Marts. It’s a bleak affair. There are even reports of teenagers gathering in parking lots, like those Polish wood ants that made a go of it in an abandoned nuclear bunker.

With that backdrop, knowing the basics of supply and demand, it’s little wonder that midnight movies were such a success. Midnight movies had long been off-again/on-again during the life of the Dundee Theater. But their most recent incarnation began in 2000, when two employees approached owner Denny Moran with the idea.

“An old theater like the Dundee just sort of screams MIDNIGHT MOVIES,” says former manager Matt Brown.

Moran agreed, but only as an experiment, only for a couple months.

The crowd shifted depending on the film. Fight Club brought the meatballs, Nightmare Before Christmas turned out the Hot Topic set. Sometimes parents would come with their kids. Then, there were the loner old guys clutching dog-eared sci-fi paperbacks.

To a kid, the city felt cold and conservative and corporate, says Jon Tvrdik, an Omaha filmmaker. Midnight movies were a blinking neon XXX sign in a town of church marquees. Tvrdik and his friends basked in the oppositionality.

“It was a nod from the establishment—which was any business that didn’t sell records—almost as if to say, ‘We see you out there, weirdos of all stripes, and we have a home for you and your cinema obsessions at night,’” Tvrdik says.

After two months, the good outweighed the bad. Midnight movies stuck.

Slowly, they evolved into more than just movies shown at a time when most people are hitting the hay.

One night Brown was showing a new employee, Jon Sours, the theater’s collection of trailers. Inexplicably, there were several for Changing Lanes, that overwrought 2002 movie that premised a whole plot out of Samuel Jackson getting into a fender bender with Ben Affleck. As the movie trailer’s narrator describes it: “An ambitious attorney. A desperate father. They had no reason to meet—until today.”

Sours insisted that this was one of the better bad trailers, and made the case for playing it before each and every midnight movie. Brown upped the ante, suggesting they play it twice.

And things sort of snowballed from there. Before long, they were playing it three or four times, upside down, in the wrong aspect ratio, backward.

The audience ate it up. Soon, they were shouting out lines from the film by memory.

“I felt like a proud father,” Sours says.

“Film,” by the way, means film. As in 35 mm. The Dundee Theater never went digital. The adherence to analog made for all sorts of charming hijinks. During Goodfellas, for example, the projector went haywire, so every scene became a weird game of Where’s Waldo? (Except with dangling microphones instead of a bespectacled guy in stripes).

It also meant that every week brought new and exciting questions about just how badly things could go wrong.

Film reels arrived to the theater scratched, spliced, and re-spliced. They were missing frames and wrapped thick with tape. And that was when they came at all. The delivery company lost a print of Jaws the day it was supposed to show, and staff had to scramble when the last remaining copy of Say Anything was destroyed; but sometimes the best ideas are borne of necessity—that night, they dug up a copy of Changing Lanes.

“We needed something to show, and we had been playing that trailer in ridicule for months,” Brown recalls. “I think some of our regular clientele were jazzed to show up and see that we were actually playing the film and not just the trailer four times in a row.”

For the most part, though, things were uneventful in the projection room. The real action was in the calamitous crowd. It was a party. A movie-watching party with a few hundred friends you didn’t know you had.

Rocky Horror Picture Show drew the costumed freaks. Purple Rain became impromptu karaoke, with people running to the front of the theater to take the lead on their favorite song. The Princess Bride was an odd communal script reading. And every now and then, during any movie, someone would kick over a clandestine bottle of something, and you’d have to listen as it slow-slow-slowly rolled all the way down the theater floor before coming to its merciful stop.

Maybe the end of the Dundee Theater was merciful, too.

Film Streams was competition, technically. But the truth is it was never close, and they were running up the score.

The Dundee had standing water in the basement and a heater rusting through. Film Streams had a brand new facility and a membership that paid to keep it shiny. The Dundee had day-glo  photocopies. Film Streams had a marketing budget.

The last midnight movie was The Room, widely considered one of the worst films ever made. It had been a regular in the repertoire.

Only about 150 people showed up that night—not at all capacity, and not even close to a record for a midnight showing.

But for Brown, who steered that ship for 13 years, it was the perfect payoff.

“They were so appreciative that we were taking some time to do a final screening of this weird little freak show movie that they all came to love, and they all came to party,” Brown says, fondly recalling the cult classic’s spoon-throwing ritual. “So many plastic spoons. It felt very communal. It was great.”

Even today, people tell Brown how much those movies meant. Their whole idea of cinema, their platonic ideal of a moviegoing experience, is based on seeing, say, Clockwork Orange or Fight Club at midnight at an art deco, formerly vaudeville theater in midtown Omaha.

Since announcing the acquisition of the Dundee, people have peppered Film Streams founder Rachel Jacobsen with questions about a reboot.

The first meeting with the Dundee neighborhood association was expected to be a dry to-do to discuss traffic flows and parking and other crushingly adult things.

Instead, people showed up specifically to advocate for the return of midnight movies.

Film Streams wants to pay respects to its predecessor, Jacobsen says, and midnight movies were a big part of what made the Dundee the Dundee. But she wants them to be different; she wants to dress up the basic concept in new clothes that are a little better fit for the new ownership.

She talks about a movie that might be the perfect balance—a French film with feminist undertones and cannibalism.

She could also open it up to “Members Select,” to let those dues-paying members pick the films they’d like to see.

Midnight movies are a big part of the theater’s recent history, sure. But Jacobsen seems well aware that much of the passion she hears could be standard-issue nostalgia.

“There’s not too many places that a teenager can go after midnight, someone under 21,” she says. “Maybe part of it is the age group that was going; they think of it as real glory days. We’re not going to try to recreate it. We couldn’t. But we’ll try to do our own version that honors the history.”

That’s no surprise to Brown.

“I seriously doubt they [Film Streams] are going to be laying out the red carpets for a bunch of 17-year-olds dressed like Frank N. Furter and Riff Raff with packs of hot dogs and bags of rice shoved down their pants to toss around,” Brown says. “I think that ship has sailed.”

Maybe it is all schmaltz for being young and dumb and the places that let you get away with it.

Tony Bonacci, a local film director, compares the midnight movies to that dive bar in stumbling distance from your front stoop. You know every nook and cranny and stain on the floor. You could pick the exact tone of green in the carpet off the Pantone color wheel. You nod to “Metaphorical Ed” who comes in after work and grabs his place at the bar, which is empty, because everyone else knows it belongs to “Ed,” too.

You love this place.

Then it goes under and is sold. Cheap draws give way to microbrews and craft cocktails. The new place is clean. There’s a great jukebox. The carpet is pried up and original hardwood restored. “Ed” found a new place to hone his alcoholism, and the new crowd is well-dressed and mannered.

It’s a good bar. A great bar. You like it. Still, something nags.

“It’s just a totally different vibe,” Bonacci says. “It’s like, ‘Man, can’t we just have that back?’”

Tvrdik, though, thinks the updated version will be, well, a lot like the rest of us—older and wiser. Still out to have a good time, it’s just what constitutes a good time has changed: less like you’re staying up past your bedtime to watch something scandalous and more like your favorite professor is playing your favorite film.

“A more mature version of what it was,” Tvrdik says.

Visit filmstreams.org for more information.

This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

13 Hours in Benghazi

July 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was featured in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The chaotic scene in Benghazi, Libya, the night of Sept. 11, 2012, looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie.

Just after 9 p.m., more than 100 Islamic militants flooded the U.S. embassy compound there, forcing a small group of American diplomats and security personnel into a frantic retreat to a safe room hidden within the compound.

One mile away, Omahan Kris Paronto, a former Army Ranger, sat watching a movie with fellow members of the secretive CIA security force known as the Global Response Staff. Then came the distress call from the compound: An urgent cry to “Get in here—NOW!” amid explosions and Jihadist cries of “Allahu Akbar.”

The ensuing rolling battle placed Paronto not only in the crosshairs of Libyan extremists, but, back in the United States, in the crosshairs of one of the most politicized events of the 21st Century. Benghazi.

Benghazi. The death of two American diplomats, including American ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died of smoke inhalation in that safe room. The fact that Paronto and his team—two of whom died in the skirmishes that followed—were told to stand down by the region’s CIA chief (orders that Paronto and his team soon disobeyed).

How could this all happen? Who was responsible for the intelligence and security lapses? Liberal conspiracy, or conspiracy theory of conservatives? Politicos in the 24-hour news cycle droned overtime.

This firestorm in which Kris Paronto found himself not only looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie, it will actually be a Michael Bay movie. And in that movie, and the book that inspired that movie, will be a character named Kris Paronto.

Paronto is now back in Omaha living what may be called a normal life with his wife, a son he calls “Bubba,” and a daughter he calls “Princess.” He takes long runs and rides his bike to clear his mind of the ghosts that haunt him. He resumed his insurance-adjusting business.

In the months following September 2012, the hourly barrage of news about this horrific ordeal died down, but what trickled out to the public was, in Paronto’s mind, grossly twisted into a political nightmare.

The surviving members of the team met in Langley, Virginia, that May to honor their fallen comrades. Following the formal service, they gathered at a bar, where they toasted the deceased. As the nearly unavoidable subject of politics arose, Paronto discovered he was not the only team member disgusted with the media’s portrayal of Benghazi.

“What the hell?” Paronto says, shaking his head.

The only way to tell the correct story would be to tell it themselves. It was then they determined they needed to write the story—as a team effort.

They had to stick together, as they were not supposed to mention the attack to anyone, let alone write a book.

“We kept getting treated badly by the CIA,” Paronto said. “We had to sign a bunch of non-disclosure agreements.”

But Paronto maintains this is the truth, and he tired of biting his tongue and clenching his fists when he heard inaccuracies on the news.

“It really bothers me when whatever side you’re on goes too far to further their cause,” Paronto says. “Battles aren’t political. You’re trying to live and they’re trying to live. We did not speculate what was going on in the head shed.”

Paronto is political in his own right. He’s a conservative-minded patriot with several tattoos, including one that looks as though his skin is being ripped open to reveal an American flag in his core.

He considers himself a warrior not just for the U.S., but for God, though personally, he’s more of a C&E’r, as in Christmas and Easter churchgoer. He sometimes attends Gethsemane Lutheran Church outside of the holidays and is a member of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

A plan of counter-political attack made, Paronto contacted his friend Richard Abate, literary agent for author Mitchell Zuckhoff. Paronto previously read Zuckhoff’s book Lost in Shangri-La, and knew that the seasoned journalist and Boston University College of Communication professor could write the story well.

“This was the first book that came to me quite this way,” Zuckhoff says. “Normally I got out and found an idea and wrote a book. I felt honored that Kris and the guys went out and found me.”

“Like a lot of Americans, I thought I knew a decent amount,” Zuckhoff says. “The incident happened about nine or 10 months earlier, and I kept on top of it…Once I started talking to the guys, I realized I, like most Americans, had no idea what happened over there.”

One part Zuckhoff had no idea about was the lack of involvement from a film titled Innocence of Muslims, which both conservatives and liberals blamed as being part of the reason for the attack.

“What? I got up the next day and saw something about a video,” Paronto says. “Gosh, I don’t know where they got that video thing. It hadn’t filtered to Benghazi yet.”

As Zuckhoff discovered the story being told in the mainstream media differed vastly from the story the guys told him, he unraveled the story like a cat tearing into a knot of yarn.

“We got it done in about three months,” Paronto said. “We did three different revisions to make it apolitical. Even though we knew it would eventually become political, we wanted it to be nonpartisan.”

Also helping to keep the story apolitical were the GRS operators’ unassuming demeanors. “These are extraordinary guys, and what I loved about working with them was they got it,” Zuckhoff says. “They didn’t focus on ‘does this make me look good?’ They didn’t ask ‘does this make me look bad because I was joking around in a serious moment.’”

One member of the unit that Paronto had a hard time keeping apolitical about was the chief, known as Bob. Bob wasn’t Paronto’s favorite person. He was a veteran of what Paronto calls the “Alphabet Soup Company,” since he oversees so many things without really being a part of any of them.

“You can be in a combat zone and not be in combat,” Paronto said. “But that’s Bob.”

He sets his jaw more squarely and straightens his back when talking about the large Libyan militia unit known as the “17 February Martyrs Brigade.” Bob told the team one reason his team did not respond quickly was that they were waiting for help from the militia’s fighters. Paronto, specifically, did not trust that militia, which was formed during the revolution that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Paronto’s instincts were proved correct when the only members of the militia in the area were a group of boys who turned back following the sight of actual combat.

“Failure to prep the 17 February unit.” “The GRS operated as mercenaries.” Accusations flew in all directions. Zuckoff had myriad divergent narratives to rectify.

“There were so many political interests around, but once I started talking to Kris, I discovered it was really straightforward,” Zuckoff says. “These are truly honorable, decent men who didn’t have any agenda outside of how they lost four brave men, and how they had been left to fend for themselves.”

Zuckhoff himself had no problem remaining neutral, although his own political tendencies sway opposite Paronto’s. The Boston University professor admits that previous to his contact with the GRS team, he was not likely to be friends with military contractors.

“My professor friends are more likely to have a glass of wine and call it a night,” Zuckhoff says. “When I go out with these guys, there’s a lot of storytelling. They are funny and profane, and there’s no guile.”

For example: Paronto, as serious as he can be, is well-known by his compatriots as an unrepentant prankster. He particularly enjoys heisting the odds-and-ends of friends (such as hats, Xbox games, and magazines), immersing them in containers of water, and then freezing them.

“I wanted to show a human side,” Paronto says. “I think the book did a good job of that.”

The book, 13 Hours in Benghazi, came out in September 2014—exactly two years after the attack.

“This was the fastest I’ve ever written a book,” Zuckoff says. “I literally only took one day off during that entire time. The only real pressure I had was that we wanted the book to come out on the second anniversary of the attack.”

The tome, bearing a book jacket covered in the yellow and green colors of a fading bruise, came out at the perfect time to engage the media. The first organization to report on the book? Fox News.

“People were saying we chose Fox because it is Republican or whatever,” Paronto says. “No, we didn’t choose them for that reason.”

The reason, Paronto said, was because Fox gave them the best deal.

Publishing the book means potential civil forfeiture of royalties and movie life rights, along with possible fines of $250,000 and prison. The team has experienced accusations of slander from both the government and the media.

But Paronto and his teammates succeeded in telling people their story. Partially boosted by good reviews in the The New York Times and the Washington Post, United States and Canadian bookstores sold 200,000 copies by the end of 2014.

Paronto sits back in his chair. “If I was in a military setting, we’d have gotten the medal of honor,” he says. “The things those guys did that night…those things that happen in combat, they don’t happen anywhere else.”

There is one other place that happens…the big screen. Paronto and the team will be able to watch the horror unfold again through the magic of Hollywood. Chuck Hogan, writer for The Town, starring Ben Affleck, wrote a screenplay based on the book. Shooting for the movie has just begun, with Pablo Schreiber portraying Paronto. No release date has been set, but Paronto has visited the set and describes Schreiber as “outstanding” in the role of, well, him.

Kris Paronto2