Tag Archives: film

A Portrait of the Filmmaker as a Young Man

February 23, 2017 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Knights in shining armor go searching for a legendary spoon. That was the concept of Sam Senser’s entry to the Canadian-based 50-Hour Film Competition. The contest’s theme was “twisted fairytale,” and all entries had to use a wooden spoon prop and include the phrase “you fool!”

His short film, “The Quest for Excalispoon,” won for best costume. A re-edited version is the 20-year-old Senser’s third short film to be accepted and screened at the Omaha Film Festival. The 2017 festival takes place March 7-12.

In 2016, Senser received honorable mention in the festival’s “Best Nebraska Short Film” category—a juried prize—for his comedic heist film “Van Man and Truck Boy 2” (also known as “The Adventures of Van Man and Truck Boy”). Senser’s younger brother Wrenn, the sidekick in “The Quest for Excalispoon,” also plays Truck Boy.

The up-and-coming filmmaker is accumulating an impressive collection of awards. In 2015, Senser won a national anti-texting-and-driving competition—Project Yellow Light—with his short video, “It’s Not Safe for Anyone.”

His advertisement, set in the dark of night, featured a distracted youth crossing a remote country road while looking down and texting on his phone. An oncoming car screeches to a halt. The kid looks up, caught in the headlights. The camera cuts to the vehicle. A deer sits behind the steering wheel, driving the car. Then the kid bolts, running into the darkness.

Surely, the deer-caught-in-the-headlights scenario is a familiar nighttime danger for drivers in Senser’s neighborhood, on the rural fringe of the Omaha metro. The simple danger captures his aesthetic.

“It’s a simpler life in a small town, and I like simple films,” says Senser, who is taking a class at Metropolitan Community College and keeps busy year-round with commissioned video work.

He hasn’t gone to film school (and probably doesn’t need to). He actually paid for his first camera with money from a freelance project for his grandfather’s insurance company. Then, during his senior year of high school, instead of seeking parental help with college tuition, Senser emptied his college fund to upgrade his camera to a $5,500 Canon C-100.

“It was a little bit of a risk, but that’s what he was passionate about,” says his father, John Senser. “He immediately went and bought the camera, and it paid off.”

The first thing he shot was the PSA with the driving deer. An early edit won a contest hosted by WOWT Channel 6 News for Omaha-area schools; the finished version earned $5,000 in prize money from Project Yellow Light.

When he won, Senser and his parents received free airfare to New York City. He stayed for free at the Waldorf Astoria. They had to scramble to find tuxedos and formal attire for the black-tie Ad Council Public Service Award Dinner (which normally costs $3,000 per seat to attend).

Then in 2016, Senser entered the contest again. He also helped his brother enter a video. Coincidentally, the Senser brothers were arriving in Boston for a family vacation with their uncle the night before Project Yellow Light announced the 2016 winners at Times Square in New York City.

After flying from Omaha to Boston, their uncle drove them four hours to the outskirts of the Big Apple. They learned the good news in-person when their videos played on the Times Square Jumbotron on the morning of Friday, July 8.

Senser won the college division for the second year in a row with his next entry, “The Cost of Distracted Driving.” Wrenn also won in the high school division. So, they swept the contest and each took home another $5,000.

The expensive camera had proven itself a wise investment for the family.

Senser says he has been making movies constantly since he was a little kid—maybe third grade, maybe fifth grade. He can’t remember exactly when he started in earnest. “They used to be stupid little short films that we’d do for fun on our family’s camcorders,” he recalls. “We wouldn’t do any editing. I’d hit record, stop it, put it up on the TV, and we’d watch it.”

The young filmmaker lives with his parents at the YMCA’s Camp Kitaki (his dad is a property manager on the grounds, and they are the only folks living year-round at the camp), which is located between Platte River State Park and South Bend.

He still documents his surroundings. In fact, he has made several promotional videos for Camp Kitaki (where he works in the summer, making slideshows for campers).

To make a big deal of Senser’s relative youth would seem patronizing. When it comes to filmmaking, Senser isn’t so much “on his way” as “already there” in terms of skill. His films would prove notable for an auteur of any vintage.

Audiences feel likewise. “His crowd reaction has been fantastic over the last several years,” says Marc Longbrake, program director of the Omaha Film Festival.

The Omaha Film Festival exhibits new independent films and lauded cinematic masterpieces alike. The event organizers also offer educational programming related to film (including a two-day academy geared toward high school students and open to the public); though Senser was never a participant.

Senser’s age did not factor into the festival’s decision to exhibit his work, Longbrake says.

“Based on its own merits early on, Sam’s films were doing well competition-wise compared to the other Nebraska filmmakers,” Longbrake says. “The fact that he was young and in college at the time that he submitted his first film doesn’t play into it. The fact that he was making quality films was the thing that we dug.”

Perfectly executed farce drew Omaha Film Festival jury members to his winning submission last year. “His movies are kind of ridiculous, but in a hilarious way,” Longbrake explains. “And you can screw that up. If you go to a comedy that’s sort of a farce, if it’s done poorly, it’s a struggle. For some reason, he hit the right beats and the right notes with the first couple films that we saw of his.”

“Van Man and Truckboy 2,” focuses on a small-town crime-fighting duo working to apprehend a villain who robbed the local bank with a drone. The film features gorgeous aerial and long shots of southeastern Nebraska countryside. To capture such breathtaking views, Senser worked with Wrenn (who recently completed Navy bootcamp), to operate a camera mounted on a drone.

Along with Wrenn as Truck Boy, Senser’s friend Jake Bruce was Van Man, and Senser’s father was the villain. All of Senser’s films so far have been collaborations with friends and family.

His editing is crisp, coherent, and expertly timed. The acting is understated and natural, sure to keep audiences laughing with wonderfully absurd exchanges like:

“The bank’s been robbed … by a drone … there were explosives, probably two pounds of C-185 trinitrotoluene wrapped in a flaked hydro-combustion chamber with a powder organic nitrate packed inside.”

“The red kind?”

“Yes.”

“Oh no. That’s the worst kind.”

Devoid of condescending parody, both of Senser’s “Van Man and Truck Boy” films offer up a recognizable, slyly humorous small-town Midwestern sensibility, where someone could earn a lasting nickname for the flimsiest of reasons, like having a truck. They’re worth a watch (and are available on his personal website).

Where is Senser headed? He says he plans to make a larger-scale short film this spring and summer to submit to festivals around the country. But he’d really like to direct a feature-length film—hopefully around here.

“I don’t know if California would be my thing,” Senser says. “But if they called—if I needed to—I would do it. Although, I’d rather make movies with this kind of setting. I just like the whole small-town feel, forests, open space, ranches, farms. It’s just simpler. Plus I know it. I grew up here. So I kind of know how things work.”

Visit senserfilms.com for more information.

Sam Senser at Camp Kitaki

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Steady As She Goes

September 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He’s part man, part machine, and all Steadicam operator. And he’s cleaning up on the screens and streets of New York.

This summer (or any season for that matter), just when you thought it was safe to shoot with a handheld camera, Omaha expatriate Kyle Wullschleger is waging an all-out war on shaky video footage with an iso-elastic arm and inner geekness. And he’s doing it for productions such as Saturday Night Live, Project Runway: All Stars, and Chopped, to name a few.

Not bad for a Heartland kid who originally wanted to be a zookeeper.

“Coming from a wildlife background, I never really was a filmophile,” Wullschleger, 28, says about his recently budding film career from his Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn apartment. “It was more about the nerdiness of using a camera and just sort of dorking out about it.”

Before the technophile discovered the power of filmic gadgetry, Wullschleger says he developed a fascination for nature while growing up on his family’s former Christmas tree farm. It was there where the self-described animal lover says he would watch beavers build dams at the edge of his parents’ property and monarch butterflies migrate through the mulberry grove in his backyard.

And it was there where he says he also developed his work ethic.

“Not only did I learn to stop and smell the roses, so to speak,” Wullschleger writes about his childhood on his work-related website, Tree Farm Cinema, “but since trees don’t completely grow themselves, I learned the importance of working hard to create something you’re passionate about.”

While Wullschleger spent the rest of his salad days glued to Marty Stouffer’s PBS animal-documentary series, Wild America, it wasn’t until he says he got a job at Henry Doorly Zoo right out of high school that it occurred to him he could observe animal behavior in a different light.

“While I was at the zoo, I had access to all these amazing animals and that’s when I actually started to pick up a camera,” he says. “The wheels were definitely turning then.”

One thing led to another and Wullschleger suddenly found himself in New York shooting a dystopian spoof about an Andrew Garfield-played character being pursued by government agents for badmouthing a Beyoncé Knowles song and a satirical ad for testicles cologne with Andy Samberg for SNL. It hasn’t been quite the sort of animal behavior that Wullschleger originally had in mind, but it’s afforded him the chance to pursue what he says has probably always been his calling: animal documentaries.

“The hope is to take my experience and connections and decent living and start creating some of my own projects that are more nature-based, because that’s what I really want to be doing,” he says, citing work he’s done with great white sharks and sandhill crane migrations. “To get something started that shows what I’m capable of and what I could do if someone gave me a budget—that’s…well, that’s the big dream.”

KyleWullschleger

Marc Longbrake

April 22, 2015 by
Photography by BIll Sitzmann

Techie Marc Longbrake was in college when he lost it at the movies. Intrigued with doing something in cinema, he managed computer-aided drafting designers for his 9-to-5 but crewed on local independent film projects for his moonlighting fix.

Fast forward to today, when he’s a veteran lighting technician on area shoots, including a feature recently accepted into Sundance, Take Me to the River. Longbrake is also a co-founder of the Omaha Film Festival (OFF).

The March 10-15 festival at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema celebrates it 10th season this year. Longbrake and fellow movie enthusiasts Jeremy Decker and Jason Levering distinguish their event from other fests here with an ambitious, multi-day slate of features, documentaries and shorts, a conference of film industry panelists, and meet-and-greet parties.

The event receives 600-plus entries from multiple states and nations. A screenplay reading series complements the script competition. A team of judges spends months viewing films and reading scripts to determine which submissions make the final cut.

“It’s a pretty intense process,” Longbrake says. Getting all the moving parts in sync is a feat. He and his partners divvy up duties. Longbrake oversees the technical side.

“I deal a lot with the projection. We take great pride and care in the way we project the films we show. That’s a huge part of it.”

He also makes sure the fest connects to the local film community via social media.

This labor of love is fueled by shared passion. “It’s not been easy, it’s not been without sacrifice,” says Longbrake, a still-video photographer and lighting grip. “The fact we’ve stayed together all this time and managed to get along and to remain on the same page—I mean we’re all very different people with very different opinions—has made for a good marriage that helps us put a good product in front of our attendees.”

Longbrake and Co. displayed vision and courage launching OFF when they did as it preceded Omaha’s much-embraced art cinema, Film Streams. They saw an indie void and filled it with the help of sponsors.

He says despite the fact “we’re all broke from this, at the end of the day we know it’s a good cultural thing for the city to have,” adding, “We’ve got enough of a fan base that if we were not to do it there’d be some disappointment. I don’t know who would pick up the ball and run with it, so we feel sort of an obligation to keep it going.”

Besides, he says “it’s pretty cool to be a part of Omaha’s cultural renaissance the last 10 years.”

Occasionally, OFF features break big, giving Omaha audiences sneak peaks of awards contenders. Then there’s moments like the one a few years ago when Longbrake introduced filmmakers Logan and Noah Miller to their idol, screenwriting guru Lew Hunter, at an OFF screening of the brothers’ debut feature, Touching Home. The twins had read Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 to learn how to write a script.

“It was a great moment for the brothers and Lew to meet and it was a great moment for me to be able to put them together.”

He enjoys it, too, when Nebraska film artists such as Yolonda Ross, Mauro Fiore (see related story on page 117), Mike Hill, Dana Altman, and Nik Fackler make OFF appearances to share their passion with audiences.

Now they’re pushing for Alexander Payne to be a future guest.

Marc Longbrake Web

History in the Digital Age

Photography by Scott Drickey

Lee Simmons has a goal to see all of the film in the archives of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium digitized and preserved. “We’ve got about 100,000 feet of 16mm film of virtually every animal that came into the zoo and virtually every procedure we did in the zoo’s first seven years,” he says. “We can never duplicate these.”

His first digitizing effort last year started with film from 1971 when Simmons, then director of the world-renowned zoo, helped examine and treat 384 animals at a zoo in New Orleans. He filmed the procedures on 16mm film. Forty-four years later, he has no way to view his work.

“16 mm film projectors have become antiques. Everyone is going digital,” says Simmons, now chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation.

He asked Universal Digital Preservation to digitize the video. He then shared thumb drives of the converted film with several veterinary schools.

“We were using fairly unique immobilizing drugs back then that are no longer available,” Simmons says. “I’ve shown it in the past to veterinary interns and staff here at the zoo.”

Being able to convert assets into a usable format can represent a great source of value to institutions, says Todd Murphy, Universal’s vice president. “However, each day that passes places these documents at risk of being lost forever. Digital preservation is a process that ensures this history can remain relevant well into the future.”

A rising need for digitization persuaded Murphy last year to expand into a high-security, climate-controlled space in the historic Universal Information Services building downtown. Customers are mostly corporations, organizations, libraries, and museums.

At Omaha Central High School, alumni were concerned about the loss and deterioration of items in their archives. After more than 150 years, the school has considerable history stored away. They also wanted to share historical images on the school’s website.

Alumni Jim Wigton, 1966, and Barry Combs, 1950, volunteered to see that the priceless items were digitized. The Register student newspaper is now online starting in 1886. So are yearbooks from 1904 and on. Basketball game films from the 1950s and 1960s are now digitized.

“As time and funds permit, we hope to scan much of the Alumni Association’s archive collection,” says Wigton.

Restoration Exchange Omaha also wants to make its sizable archives available to the public. The nonprofit is the result of the merging in 2013 of Landmarks Inc., Restore Omaha, and Omaha Urban Neighborhoods.

“When we merged, we inherited from Landmarks Inc. these amazing archives accumulated over 50 years,” says Restoration Exchange Omaha executive director Kristine Gerber.

“We eventually will put all these archives on our website. It will be a great resource for the community. There now isn’t one place to go if researching the architectural history of Omaha.”

Fading photos, 16 mm films, VHS tapes and audiocassettes languishing in basements can be archived, used for presentations, and shared online when digitized.

Mitch Treu oversees the expanded service for Universal. “Documentation from the past has an invaluable place in the future and making that history relevant again is possible.”

UniversalWeb2

 

 

Joanna Kingsbury

April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Rogue Icons

Originally published in March/April Encounter.

Joanna Kingsbury, a resident of Omaha for the past three years, has dipped her toes into many creative fields: acting, singing, dancing, and DJ-ing. She recently completed a role as Sarah Trecek, the conservative girlfriend of the main character in the local, independent film, Flyover Country.

But now she seeks to add another line to her resume: Air Force enlistee.

On Jan. 5, Kingsbury took a break from singing, acting, dancing, etc., to train in aerospace physiology in the United States Air Force for the next four years. It’s a career move that seems crazy to most, but on a dreary winter  morning, Kingsbury is eager to explain why it’s a perfect fit for her.

“I love being a contradiction so much,” Kingsbury says with a grin.

While an acting career didn’t pique her interest until high school, she’s always felt at home in the arts. One of six children, Kingsbury hails from a naturally creative family in the Chicago suburbs.

“We’re the kind of family that when we get together, we always do a talent show and do like handstand competitions,” says Kingsbury. “We’re kind of just a goofy, crazy artistic family.”

It’s also family that brought Kingsbury out to Omaha in the first place. Kingsbury’s older brother, also a member of the Air Force and a DJ, lived in Omaha alongside other military members with an interest in the arts. Kingsbury visited her brother’s house in 2010, and was surprised to discover a vibrant underground arts scene in this so-called flyover country.

“I was just like, man, it seems fun in Omaha. My brother’s DJ-ing, they’re doing all these gigs, and he has all of these friends that are doing all of these really cool things,” says Kingsbury.

A year later, Kingsbury decided to take a leap of faith, move out to Omaha from Chicago, and hit the ground running. She joined acting groups on Facebook, formed a cover duet band with a man she met on Craigslist, and eventually landed her role in Flyover Country. 

The film, which examines the friendship between main characters straight Russ and gay Todd, didn’t just conveniently land in Kingsbury’s lap. Although she “blew” her audition for the role of Sarah the first time, the director and producer saw that Kingsbury was passionate about the project, and encouraged her to try out for a second time.

This vote of confidence didn’t keep Kingsbury from being plagued with doubts during filming. It was her first time playing a speaking character on film, a character who was saying “some of the worst things ever” about the LGBT community.  But Kingsbury tried to focus on the fun, rather than the fears, that came with stepping outside of her comfort zone. “I love to push myself,” she says.

Thus, whether it’s DJ-ing late into the night at a club or modeling for pin-up magazines, Kingsbury is enjoying her wild ride. Her journey is about to get even tougher over the next four years, as she will be serving her country among the nation’s finest.

But Kingsbury is adamant that being in the Air Force, where discipline and perseverance are championed, will make her a better actress and singer. Her goal is to make the Air Force Choir, and naturally, she is relishing her unorthodox route.

“I know it sounds totally ludicrous to anyone that wouldn’t be in the military, but you can be in the military and you can pursue artistic things,” says Kingsbury.

encounter4

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.

RAW Aesthetics

January 22, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Other than a rather arid climate and the identical first four letters of their names, Australia and Austin, Tex., share little in common, but those are the places that cemented an artistic vision for Amber Keller.

“I had worked a couple graphic design jobs here [in Omaha] before I realized something was missing,” Keller says, “so I sold most of my belongings, threw my art supplies in the car, and hit the road, creating as much art as I could along the way.” It was when she unpacked her bags in Austin for a few months in 2011 that she discovered RAW: Natural Born Artists, an international nonprofit program that acts as an incubator for new and emerging artists. They described themselves, Keller recalls, as being “for artists, by artists.”

“I did my first RAW show in Austin,” says the woman who is now director of Omaha’s RAW affiliate. “I knew the model could succeed here because our city has such a strong arts community. There’s just an amazing amount of talent here.”

Before returning to Omaha, Keller further satisfied her wanderlust by paring down her already meager possessions to backpack through Australia, where she did a RAW show in 2012.

RAW held its first annual local RAWards Semi Finals in November at Sokol Auditorium. Three finalists in nine disciplines showed their work to vie for the honor of winning a shot to advance to nationals in Los Angeles. Artists competed in the categories of visual arts, photography, film, music, performance, fashion, accessories, makeup, and hair.

Amber Keller’s look is thanks to a few RAW:Omaha artists: Her dress is by Haus of Donna Faye, her earrings by Juan Mora-Amaral, makeup by Lyndee Marie, bodypaint by Alyssa Keller, and haircolor and style by Tammy Cox.

Amber Keller’s look is thanks to a few RAW:Omaha artists: Her dress is by Haus of Donna Faye, her earrings by Juan Mora-Amaral, makeup by Lyndee Marie, bodypaint by Alyssa Keller, and haircolor and style by Tammy Cox.

The L.A.-based RAW now operates in 60 American cities along with an increasing footprint in foreign countries. Omaha’s roster of 120 RAW artists ranges in age from 17 to near retirement age, and various artists displayed their work in a series of four showcases throughout 2012. There are no membership fees to become a RAW artist, but showcase participants are expected to sell tickets to the events so that RAW reaches the widest possible audience.

“RAW helps build an artistic community, but we do it as team,” Keller says. “The semi-final event was a competition, yes, but we’re still working together, not against each other. RAW helps foster collaborations between artists, and we support each other here in Omaha in a way that is kind of rare for a city our size.”

Tim Guthrie, a visual artist and experimental filmmaker who is a Creighton University professor of journalism, media, and computing, was one of three judges for the event. Joining Guthrie on the panel were Andrew Norman of the music-centric Hear Nebraska and Shane Bainbridge of design-focused The New BLK.

“It wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t know anything about RAW,” says Guthrie, “which is almost kind of appropriate in that it parallels the theme of what RAW does in terms of building visibility for artists. Omaha’s art scene is amazing, but it can be a little cliquish. It’s still a very friendly atmosphere, but there is a hint of ‘the haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ when it comes to being widely known. With a lot of dedication and hard work from these artists, it is my hope that RAW helps more of them into the category of ‘the haves.’”

RAW Artists 
Advancing to 
Nationals:

Film: Rob Kasel

Visual Art: Madeleine Thoma

Photography: Michelle Woitzel

Fashion: Haus of Donna Faye

Makeup: Lyndee Marie

Hair: Brogan

Accessories: Casey Jones

Performing Art: Flying Eagles Acrobalance Troupe

Music: Omaha Street Percussion

Work and videos by these and other RAW artists may be seen at 
rawartists.org.

The Making of Nebraska

November 15, 2013 by
Photography by Martin Magnuson

When you watch Alexander Payne’s acclaimed new film Nebraska, keep in mind that each and every acting part was cast in a collaboration between the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker and his casting director, John Jackson.

Under the name John Durbin, Jackson long ago established himself as a character actor in Hollywood and beyond. IMDb.com lists 61 credits in the filmography of the Council Bluffs native and resident. Jackson returned home in 1988 to run a local casting service while taking acting gigs here and on the coast.

For Payne’s first feature, Citizen Ruth (1996), Jackson was hired to do Omaha location casting. He filled 32 speaking roles, plus all the extras. From the start, Jackson says, “We had a great working relationship. The same thing happened when Alexander came back to work on Election (1999). And then he began slowly to include me. The New York casting people would send him tapes and he’d say, ‘John, why don’t you watch this and tell me what you think,’ and that built.”

On About Schmidt (2002), Jackson says Payne entrusted him with ever more responsibility and increasingly sounded out his advice. “Until finally the producer of Schmidt said to Alexander, ‘Why do you hire these people in New York and L.A.? Why don’t you just get this guy?’ Meaning me.”

Jackson was back home directing and playing a supporting role in a Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company production when Payne called to say he was casting Sideways (2004), and he needed Jackson in 
California immediately.

“So that started a process of me being in L.A. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” recalls Jackson. “Then Friday morning, I’d get on a plane, fly back home, land, grab something to eat, go to the theater, do the show Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Then Monday fly back.”

Jackson says Sideways “was a new experience for both of us in many ways.” It found Payne shooting his first feature away from Neb., and it marked the first time Jackson served as the filmmaker’s sole casting director, a role he has continued for The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013).

“In honing our working method over the last 18 years,” Payne says, “we just have developed a very similar aesthetic of what we want to see in a film, the type of reality we want. Also, I think the two of us have developed a pretty good eye for spotting acting talent in nonactors.”

The pair filled a large number of roles in Nebraska with real-life farmers and small-town bar denizens. As with any project, they painstakingly searched for the right needle-in-a-haystack fit for characters. Payne’s particularly proud of the challenges overcome in casting Nebraska. To make it all work, he asked lead actors Bruce Dern and Will Forte to “flatten” their performances to be in synch with the low-key non-actors.

Jackson says the cast immersed themselves in the story’s “magnificent simplicity.” He says his job was to “build the world” Payne envisions for the characters in the script. “We paint with people. We want it to be as authentic as possible.”

nebraska-outline

Alexander Payne (left) provided by Alexander Payne. John Jackson (right) by Martin Magnuson.

Payne is often praised for his casting, and he always deflects credit to Jackson, whom he calls “my secret weapon.” Jackson now finds himself in-demand as a CD and is currently casting two new films, Car Dogs and 
Phantom Halo.

“Everybody told me when I left L.A. in ’88 I was throwing away everything I’d built,” Jackson says, “but I never believed I was throwing it all away, and it was because of moving back here the greatest thing from a creative and professional stand-
point happened.”

He says Payne engenders loyalty by “building a rapport that ends up showing up in the work.” The entire crew is encouraged to speak their minds.

“If Alexander and I didn’t have that commitment,” Jackson continues, “I would cave to the pressure of the producers who say to me, ‘You need to convince Alexander these are the people he needs.’ Instead, I’m like, ‘That’s not my job, my job is to support, encourage, and grow his vision.”

Nebraska will premiere Nov. 22 at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater. A Nov. 24 Feature V fundraising benefit for Film Streams will feature Studio 360  host Kurt Andersen interviewing Payne, Dern, and Forte on the Holland Performing Arts Center stage.

In their “give and take,” the pair always aims to serve the script and its characters ahead of commercial considerations. It’s all about fleshing out the universe of the actors who best inhabit those characters.

With a work like Nebraska, Payne says, “It’s as much anthropological as it is cinematic. I knew that this film would really live or die on his casting.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

Dan Susman

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Behind the glass doors and up the stairs at 2626 Harney St., Dan Susman sits tucked away from the world with just his computer equipment, morning coffee, and a big smile slapped on his face. The ambitious 25-year-old is at work on a dream project that emerged from a fascination with urban farming, and he’s hoping his work will inform and drive others to the trend.

Susman graduated from Central High School in 2006, then headed off to the prestigious Dartmouth College in New Hampshire where he earned a bachelor’s degree with dual majors: biology and environmental studies.

After spending some time working on an urban farm in Portland, Ore., Susman’s passion for the farming practice and sustainable agriculture grew. Upon returning to Omaha in 2010, Susman got together with childhood friend Andrew Monbouquette and decided to make a documentary about the trend. Growing Cities has been over two years in the making. It’s taken the crew from Boston to Seattle and 19 other cities in between.

“I got the idea that I wanted to visit urban farms across the country, and Andrew was really more of the film guy at the time,” Susman explains. “He had made some short films, and I just kind of proposed it to him.”

That was it. With Monbouquette onboard, Susman felt confident moving forward with the idea. The partners raised $39,000 for documentary research and production expenses using Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects, and got to work.

“We took a giant road trip for about two months,” he continues. “On our trip, we visited everything from rooftop farmers to people with goats, bees, and chickens in their backyards. We have a scene in the film where a guy is walking across the street with his goat in Berkeley [Calif.],” he says with a laugh.

“We wanted to see how other cities were growing food, and we were really looking for positive examples across the country.”

Susman is not alone in his interest in the ecology trend. Urban farming—the practice of growing, processing, and distributing food all within a city—has exploded in popularity in recent years due to a downsized economy, a local food movement, and a greater push toward healthier eating.

According to the USDA, urban farming is taking off with around 15 percent of the world’s food now being grown in urban areas.

The reasons for the documentary film are several, Susman says. When he came home to Omaha, he noticed several giant billboards that said Omaha was one of the fattest cities in the country. He felt it was his obligation to do something about it.

“We wanted to see how other cities were growing food, and we were really looking for positive examples across the country,” he says. “We wanted to take those models and potentially apply them here. We wanted to show what you could do with very little space, such as your backyard or a window.”

Susman’s side project, Truck Farm Omaha, sprouted from the road trip the crew took while filming Growing Cities. Throughout his travels, he routinely discovered truck farms, which are little gardens planted in the flatbed of a truck. Once he was back in Omaha, he acquired a 1975 Chevy pickup truck, then planted a truckbed garden, and was soon visiting local schools. The purpose—to educate young people about where food comes from and the benefits of eating locally.

“If you don’t have space or time or tools or know-how to grow food, we want to say, ‘Here are some easy steps you can take.’ You don’t have to have a huge garden in your backyard,” he explains. “You could have a little pot and just have some basil or a tomato in there.

“We’re trying to educate people on the steps they can take to grow their own. That will make the biggest difference.”

Susman plans to finish post-production on Growing Cities in the near future and will be submitting the project to film festivals later this year. For more details on the film and its release, visit GrowingCitiesMovie.com.

Elle Lien Lynch

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“If this were a movie set,” says Elle Lien Lynch, gesturing to the coffee shop, “everything that you see would be something that the set dec buyer would have to find and buy. The one thing I wouldn’t have been responsible for would have been the things you and I, the actors, touch.” Suddenly, the ceramic mug on the table seems glamorous. A prop.

Last December, Lien finished her work as set-decorating buyer for Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska. The movie, estimated for a late 2013 release, follows “an aging, booze-addled father [as he] makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes prize,” according to IMDb.

Though Lien had no prior experience in the industry (she’s the former owner of closed downtown restaurant Daily Grub), Deidre Backs, a friend who had worked with Payne in film, suggested she submit her resume for the set-decorating buyer position. “Being a local is a huge plus as a buyer,” Backs says of the reasons she encouraged Lien, “because locals know where all the bodies are buried. And with her history of running a restaurant, I knew that handling the accounting side of the job would be no sweat.”

Though Lien says she knows Payne from around town, he had no idea she had applied for a job on Nebraska. “My resume got tossed into a pile with a bunch of other people,” she says. Still, something about it obviously caught the eye of set decorator Beauchamp Fontaine. “I am a hunter,” Lien says, referring to her experience in interior design and buying vintage furniture. “I put that on my resume. I’m a hunter-gatherer. I find old things and breathe new life into them.”

She started work in Norfolk, Neb., last September for a month of preproduction before filming began in October. Lien says she went into the experience without knowing much about the film besides the fact that Payne was directing. “Everything’s very vague,” she says. She read the script on her first day at work. When Payne noticed her in the film’s office one day, he told her, “Welcome to the circus.”

“I’m a hunter-gatherer. I find old things and breathe new life into them.”

“I think he was surprised to see me there,” she recalls.

While Lien says that Fontaine determined the look and feel of a set, she would occasionally defer to Lien’s Midwest background. “These are my people,” Lien says with a laugh. That familiarity with small-town Nebraska culture was probably helpful considering that much of what Lien found to decorate the sets (oh, and every item had to shoot well in both color and black-and-white, thanks to the look of the film) was in people’s garages or thrift stores. “If it had been ordering curtains or buying new things, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much,” she adds. “I would have been fine, but I loved this job.” She delightfully describes her responsibilities as speed shopping with someone else’s money.

Of course, she came from running her own restaurant where “you have your finger on absolutely every aspect of everything.” Working on Nebraska, Lien says she was more like a piece of a puzzle. “It’s very structured,” she says, describing how within the set decorating department, there’s the set decorator (Fontaine); the set decorating buyer (Lien); the lead man, who’s in charge of getting the stuff to the set, returning it, and storing it; and the set dressers, who place and install the various pieces in the set.

But wait, there’s more. Set decorating is a department within the art department. And, surprise, the art department is also a department within the art department. Then there’s scenic and prop. “You all feel like you’re doing your part,” Lien says, “but it’s just so big and decentralized.” When asked if she’d like to work on a film again, she says, “I would love to be a lead man. But it all appeals to me. It was the absolute perfect place for me to land for my first film.”

Though she and husband Joey Lynch had been seriously contemplating a move to New Orleans to be closer to more film industry opportunities, Lien credits Nebraska with gently changing her mind. “I felt like maybe it was why we didn’t move,” she says. “I felt a real sense of pride in this place.”