Alexander Payne, a reporter’s perspective

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September 18th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Local journalist Leo Biga has been following Omaha native and Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne since the earliest days of his career. Now Biga has authored a book about Payne, his contributions to cinema and stories from the reporter’s road. Robyn Wisch recently sat down with Biga in the KVNO studio to talk about his upcoming book.

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Robyn Wisch: We are here in the studio with Leo Biga, author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, a Reporter’s Perspective. Leo, thanks for joining us today.

Leo Biga: Thank you, Robyn.

RW: So you’ve been following Alexander Payne since early on in his career; you’ve been on set with him; you’ve interviewed him multiple times. Tell us the story of how that began, how you gained access to him at such an early stage.

Leo Biga is a freelance journalist based in Omaha, Neb. (Courtesy photo)

LB: Basically, I was already a freelance journalist. The Reader newspaper, a local weekly alternative that a lot of people are familiar with, ran a cover story on Payne. This was after Citizen Ruth. And I was already familiar with Payne’s work because of that feature, but actually going back before that, I had been a film programmer in Omaha, and I had actually screened his thesis film, The Passion of Martin. I was really impressed with it, and I made a mental note at least to myself that this is a person to watch.

So I see this cover profile of him in The Reader, and I just thought that it was not written in a way that did Payne justice as an emerging figure of I thought importance in the world of cinema. So anyway, I pitched to them about a year later, when he was prepping for Election, my doing a new profile of him. So I ended up writing this profile for The Reader that was the first of what turned out to be a couple dozen stories, many of them in-depth stories.

Alexander Payne is an Omaha native and Oscar-winning director. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

RW: So throughout Alexander Payne’s filmmaking career, his movies have been very connected to Nebraska. His last two films, Sideways and The Descendants, were not filmed in the state, but the rest of them have been. And his upcoming film is going to be shot in Norfolk, and is titled Nebraska. So what do you think about his depiction of his home state, and his connection that he keeps coming back to?

LB: I was thinking about this earlier today, Robyn. I have a friend who’s a fellow film buff. And I know that with Payne’s early films, he was rather disgruntled that Payne’s Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt all had this kind of dull, washed-out quality. And my friend would almost insinuate, ‘Gosh, he’s working with such small budgets, can’t he afford better equipment or better technicians?’ And of course, it wasn’t that. It was, all of those films were shot in Omaha essentially, and he was trying to capture a certain reality that he’s obviously very familiar with, having grown up here and having lived here most of his life, still lives here, still keeps a residence here. And he’s so much about being true to place. So yes, he could’ve chosen to film other aspects of Omaha, other parts of Omaha that maybe look more picturesque, but that wasn’t the story he was telling in those films. Those films had very particular situations, characters and locales that had to be rendered true to the stories that he was telling.

Alexander Payne directing Jack Nicholson on the set of About Schmidt. (Photo courtesy Leo Biga)

I’ve had many conversations with him, as others have, you know ‘What is it that you’re trying to capture about Omaha?’ And he says himself it’s a very difficult thing to describe. What is it that defines this place? And I know he wasn’t totally satisfied that he had gotten to that point until About Schmidt. That’s when he felt he had really captured something about Omaha in terms of the look of it, the feel of it, the existential quality of it. And he felt that, once he had done that, he felt secure that he could leave this place that is Nebraska, that is Omaha, to make a feature film elsewhere. And of course that led to making Sideways and some years later, The Descendants.

So ultimately he loves Nebraska, he’s a Nebraskan. That’s not something he deflects. He embraces it. In almost any interview he does, he ends up talking about Omaha, Nebraska and lovingly. So that’s simply a huge part of who he is, it always will be, and it’s why he’ll always return to make films here.

RW: And he is returning to Nebraska to make his next movie, which is titled Nebraska. Tell us, from what you know, what can we expect?

LB: You can expect what you’ve seen from Payne before, which is a very human story grounded in a truth that will be I think for most of us impossible to deny and very easy to identify with.

I’ve had a chance to read the script. It’s extraordinary in its humor and its insight. And I’ll just say that, without giving anything away, the ending is one of the most touching and powerful grace notes to a film that I’ve ever read. I don’t know what it will play like on screen. But if it plays anything like it reads, it will be one of the most memorable endings to a film in a very long time.

RW: Leo Biga’s new book is coming out September 22nd. He will be reading from it at several book signing events around Omaha throughout September and October. Leo, thanks so much for joining us today.

LB: Thank you, Robyn.

For a full schedule of book signing events, click here.

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