Writer Leo Adam Biga joins me today to chat about his film & entertainment book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. His articles appear in various newspapers and magazines as well as on his popular blog, leoadambiga.com, and Facebook page, My Inside Stories. His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, regional and national levels. He was the 2015 recipient of the Andy Award for international journalism from his alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha. That grant supported his reporting mission to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa in the company of professional world boxing Terence Crawford of Omaha and Pipeline Worldwide director Jamie Nollette.
Biga is the author of several books, including Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film and Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden. Biga's reporting and writing about Payne has made him a recognized expert on the Oscar-winning filmmaker (Sideways, Nebraska) from Omaha. His latest book is Nebraska Methodist College at 125: Scaling New Heights – a history of the Omaha-base college of nursing and allied health celebrating 125th years.
The writer is developing the Nebraska Screen Heritage Project as a multimedia celebration of native Nebraskans in the film and television industry. He is also developing a book about Omaha's Black Sports Legends.
Welcome, Leo. Please tell us about your current release.
Articles and essays take you deep inside Alexander Payne’s creative process. This second edition includes significant new material related to his last film "Nebraska" and his highly anticipated new film "Downsizing," It also features the addition of a Discussion Guide with Index.
Payne fans will appreciate the extensive interviews-stories that follow the arc of the writer-director's career from brash upstart to consummate filmmaker at the head of the Indiewood movement.
Film historian Thomas Schatz ("The Genius of the System"):
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words.”
“Alexander Payne is one of American cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.”
“Throughout many years of being interviewed, I find Mr. Biga’s articles about me to be the most complete and perceptive of any journalist’s anywhere. They ring true to me, even in critique, in a way that reveals the depth of his talent in observation, understanding and expression.”
What inspired you to write this book?
In covering Alexander Payne more than a decade and a half I accumulated a large body of work about someone I saw go from a promising newcomer few heard of and whose first two films were not much seen to an accomplished filmmaker recognized around the world. The book collects my journalism about Payne and his journey in film, thereby preserving my work about him in an enduring, hard-bound fashion and thereby contributing my take on this important film artist.
Excerpt from Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film:
Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.
Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.
Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty second trailer or hearing a thirty second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.
Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film.
Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held, much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self- fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood, and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.
To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.
What exciting story are you working on next?
At any given time there are interesting journalism and other narrative-based projects that arise. Much of my work as a journalist entails writing about various arts-culture subjects. I also write a fair amount on social justice issues. On occasion I travel for my work. I once went to North Dakota to research a set of stories about a campus serving developmentally disabled individuals. I participated in a baseball tour of the Midwest that resulted in a first-person story I wrote about the tour group’s visits to various baseball shrines and stadiums in a five-state region. I spent a week on the set of Alexander Payne’s Sideways in the Santa Barbara region and wrote a series of stories from that experience. I traveled with a group of folks from Omaha to the first Obama inauguration in D.C. and filed a story about that. I have been out to Los Angeles a number of times related to my reporting on Payne and his films. In 2015 I received a grant for international journalism that funded my reporting mission to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with world boxing champion Terence Crawford. This past summer I made my first visits to the American South and I wrote a number of posts about the experiences on my blog and Facebook page. In 2017 I hope to travel to New York or Toronto for the North American premiere of Payne’s new film Downsizing starring Matt Damon.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I suppose I began thinking that way in college, though I didn’t do all that much writing then. it really wasn’t until some years after college, having worked in public relations and then beginning to freelance as a journalist, that I identified as a writer. But it still took me a few years to say the words “I am a writer” without stumbling over them.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Yes, I do write full-time. Like most writers, much of my time is not taken up with writing per se, but rather with the different things that prepare me to write (interviews, research) and sustain my writing (pitching, marketing). There’s a fair amount of correspondence and phone conversation that takes place between myself and editors.
My writing schedule depends on what else I have going on in terms of interviews and such. It also depends on what kind of writing I’m doing . If it’s a book, I try to plan writing on certain days and even during certain times of the day when I know I’ll be able to devote some undivided attention to the project. If it’s an article, then it’s a bit more haphazard and directed in part by deadlines. If it’s a blog or Facebook post, then it’s much more in the moment and as the spirit moves me. With any of these forms of writing though, I might be at the keyboard in the morning, afternoon or evening.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
As a nonfiction writer I depend on primary interviews for my source material and I am a stickler for recording all my interviews and transcribing them myself.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I don’t recall ever really thinking in those terms as a child. I am also sure I would never have considered being a writer if not for some teachers in elementary and high school who encouraged me. There were a couple professors in college who also influenced me to follow this path.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Most of my original writing these days is actually done for my blog and Facebook page. But those sites also serve as an archive and new platform for my previously published work. If your readers want a real sense for who I am as a person and as a writer, I encourage them to visit those sites.
Thank you for being here today, Leo.