Cinema’s Bright Lights Have Reached the Big O

Cinema’s Bright Lights Have Reached the Big O
The Reader (July 2001)
By Wendy Townley

Know too much about “About Schmidt?”

Don’t worry; the Omaha Film Office doesn’t mind.

“It’s invaluable to have Alexander Payne as a Nebraska native,” said Julie Ginsberg, a film commissioner with the Omaha Film Office.

Payne, an Omaha native and director of “About Schmidt,” brought cinema legend Jack Nicholson to the area earlier this year, creating quite a buzz among residents and media outlets. Payne’s movie magic performed an encore following the 1999 film “Election,” which was also shot primarily in Nebraska’s largest city. “Election” starred Mathew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon and, in his acting debut, then-Omaha resident Chris Klein.

But hold the applause. A handful of movies, from small budget, independent cinema to larger budget, made-for-TV movies, are using the Big O as their backdrop to paint movie magic all the way to Hollywood and beyond.

“Movies shot in Omaha help the city’s image by proving that it is a city with all of the vital elements necessary to facilitate these projects,” Ginsberg said. “It helps show that we are a progressive city.”

The Reader caught up with the brains behind four, locally produced films: “Full Ride,” “The Way,” “Nebraska Supersonic” and “Walker.”

“Full Ride”
Among the four films shot recently in Omaha, “Full Ride” carried the biggest price tag. Director Mark Hoeger and producer Andy Anderson are proud to report all of the $1.6 million of the film’s budget was raised through local investors.

Hoeger and Anderson, who both live in Omaha, have always enjoyed working with film and realized a production company was a way to bring the Big O’s potential to the map. Today, the two are behind Oberon Entertainment, which produced “Full Ride” earlier this year.

“Getting a film production company in Nebraska came down to the realization that, over the years, there was a network of people from across the state who had connections and some rather significant success within the entertainment and film industries. We brought these folks together and combined that with the significant amount of capital available in Nebraska,” Hoeger said.

The two film gurus began working on “Full Ride” about a year ago.

Based on a cocky yet talented football player, “Full Ride” tells the tale of Matt Sabo, played by actor and former Tommy Hilfiger model Riley Smith. The local high school football hero gets caught living out his teenage angst through drugs and burglary. Matt now has two options: go to jail or attend an all-start football training camp. A full ride college scholarship is also up for grabs if Matt plays nice with the other athletes. On the down side, an ambitious coach exploiting the teen’s talents is fuel to Matt’s fire, along with a emotionally exhausting love story with Amy Lear, played by co-star Meredith Monroe of Warner Brothers’ TV teen drama, “Dawson’s Creek.”

Matt meets Amy in this small town, using Blair, Neb. and Dana College, as the backdrop, and initially sees her as a conquest; but that’s her goal, too. Both teens enter the relationship expecting a sweaty romp in the sheets, and are surprised when they fall in love with each other.

“The film opens up all these wounds and hidden agenda items that go beyond lust and sex. The full ride is the ultimate goal of what everyone in this situation is after, be it a full ride scholarship or the sexual connotation to a full ride,” Hoeger said.

Oberon Entertainment also shot scenes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, wrapping up filming after 22 days.

When the editing is complete for “Full Ride,” the film will be passed into the hands of California-based PorchLight Entertainment and sold to all foreign and video/TV domestic markets. Some of PorchLight’s projects have been aired on networks such as Lifetime, HBO Family and TNT.

Oberon’s goal is to get “Full Ride” into theaters, but high costs of a theatrical release may pose an obstacle for the company. Hoeger isn’t too concerned about obstacles: “I always find in the creative process that the things that turned out just the way you thought they would are usually mediocre compared to the things that gave you hell.”

“The Way”
Michael Lang isn’t afraid to give Hollywood the finger. This Omaha-based actor and filmmaker has paid his dues on the West Coast in films such as “American History X” and “Apt Pupil.” Today, Lang is in the process of producing and staring in the psychodrama “The Way.”

“We called the film ‘The Way’ after all the elements fell into place. We wanted to shoot this film, and it started to become a road movie. That’s essentially what ‘the way’ is; about this guy’s journey,” said Lang, who co-wrote the screenplay and is starring as Avery Hunter, the lead character.

A former mechanic, Avery heads on the open road to find true happiness. Unfortunately, Avery doesn’t get very far; his 1966 Nova leaves him stranded amidst a slue of characters who teach him a thing or two about what life has to offer.

“He’s an anti-hero,” Lang said. “He works hard and his heart is in the right place, but his life hasn’t turned out how he anticipated, much like everyone else’s. He makes very severe choices that lead him throughout the entire story.”

Part of what plagues Avery throughout the film are the choices he makes; for example, his drug-addicted girlfriend, Lucy. Lucy spends most of Avery’s income on her addiction, leaving the lead character with little to live on.

“Avery realizes how beat down he is by how hard he has to work. He’s a very strong character who has been beaten down so long that he has lost his way,” Lang said.

Interwoven between the scenes of Avery’s life are characters who represent different facets of the lead character.

Dionysus Studios, the production company behind “The Way,” cast locally for the film.

“There’s a huge amount of talent [in Omaha], and I would be lying if I said cost wasn’t a factor,” Lang said. Among those cast for “The Way” was Sweet 98 deejay Wayne Coy, who plays the role of Paul, a construction worker Avery encounters on his journey.

Lang and director Corey Hart’s decision to cast locally came as a result from their experiences in Los Angeles and Hollywood.

“When you bring people out from L.A., there’s baggage attached. People have a hard time disassociating big-name actors with characters they’ve played. People want to see unknowns, instead of the same, stale performances,” Lang said.

Filming for “The Way” began a year ago throughout California. The remaining footage will be shot in the Sandhills of Western Nebraska and throughout downtown Omaha for a 21-day shoot this summer.

While Lang wouldn’t specify how much “The Way” would cost, he said the amount would fall between “300,000 and $3 million.” Dionysus Studios has been seeking investments locally for the film, Lang said.

Because of the influx of films now produced in Omaha, Lang said the costless shooting permits might go by the wayside.

“What worries me is the big budget films coming in and allowing legislature to make money off of this. Big companies have the money it takes to buy what they need.”

Lang said he and Dionysus Studios plan to submit “The Way” at the annual Sundance Film Festival. Should the powers-that-be deny the film, Lang said the film would be marketed to independently owned theaters throughout the Midwest.

Regardless of the film’s fate, Lang said Hollywood isn’t a threat.

“Hollywood isn’t feeding me. There are other markets we can utilize. This script is going to scare the hell out of people. I’ve made my bed and I’ll sleep in it. I’ve gone all the way with this project. We’re going to take people to the edge, and people will respect that.”

“Nebraska Supersonic”
The drive between Omaha and Lincoln and back again has traditionally been a boring one. Few mile markers dot the 52-mile jaunt, for the exception of a few rest stops and a 24-hour porn palace.

But when one adds a few post-college guys making the trek on bicycles, the route transforms to cinema.

Enter “Nebraska Supersonic,” the project of Omaha filmmaker Jeremy Lerman. The 75-minute comedy paints a picture of three college grads, Cal, Stan and Dave, played by Sonny Robison, Jesse Joyner and Matt Kelhan, respectively. The three begin a package delivery service on bicycles, aptly named Nebraska Supersonic, serving customers throughout Omaha and Lincoln.

The project, which took about a month to shoot in the summer of 1998, carried a price tag of $28,000. “Nebraska Supersonic” had its debut in May at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Lerman and his crew filmed throughout 50 locations in Omaha, Lincoln and Waterloo. Casting for the film was accomplished locally for the 90-plus actors. Lerman posted fliers throughout the Old Market and in a handful of Omaha’s playhouses to entice would-be actors.

Lerman is no stranger to filmmaking. An Omaha native, the University of Pennsylvania grad worked as a production assistant for “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” both directed by fellow Omahan Alexander Payne. Lerman’s Prairie Dog Productions, LLC, produced “Nebraska Supersonic.”

“I want people to leave the film with a good laugh and hopefully from a type of humor that one doesn’t often seen,” said Lerman, the film’s director, writer, producer, directory of photography and editor. “I’ve been told the movie was like ‘Mean Streets’ meets ‘The Simpsons.’” Lerman also plays Jerry Lemon, the film’s narrator.

The film hasn’t gone unnoticed in the film community. Lerman won best screenplay for “Nebraska Supersonic” at the 2001 No Dance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film also received a handful of glowing reviews from publications such as the San Francisco Examiner and Houston Chronicle.

Lerman said meaningful themes exist in “Nebraska Supersonic,” such as how friendships change, “and negotiating life in your early 20s.”

The comic writer and his crew stayed true to cinema’s roots, shooting not on digital video, but on 16mm film. “I’ll risk [independent film] blacklisting and say I’m still a fan of film,” Lerman said.

Following the run of “Nebraska Supersonic,” Lerman said he hopes to continue working as a writer and director. “To make a living at it, there obviously has to be financing: a product bought and sold,” Lerman said.

Both advantages and drawbacks exist in Omaha when it comes to making movies, Lerman said. “As to Omaha becoming a production center, I don’t think a spell of shooting–even a year or two–does or does not indicate a sustainable cycle of production.”

Duncan Joyner has always loved telling stories. Much of his passion can be attributed to growing up the son of an Omaha TV news anchor. Today, his love for storytelling matured into writing and directing his first, full-length feature, “Walker.”

When the going gets tough, the tough consider suicide. That’s the overall plot of “Walker.” On the cusp of turning 30, Walker, played by Kelcey L. Watson, is a talented writer who thinks he’s anything but. Working to accomplish the success of his older brother, Walker decides suicide will be his fate if he doesn’t meet his expectations in the next six months.

“Walker’s a severe character. He wants a lot and has a lot of desires and dreams. He feels like he has to get there now. The first draft is never good enough,” Joyner said.

Joyner has collaborated with a handful of locals to produce “Walker,” including Clayton Sharp, the film’s art director. A comic book artist with publishing experience in Washington, D.C., Sharp storyboards the film.

“I realized comics and movies go hand in hand. You need to create a storyboard before you film a movie, and a storyboard is nothing more than a comic book,” Sharp said.

Sharp and Joyner met, oddly enough, on the set of Jeremy Lerman’s 1998 film “Nebraska Supersonic.”

“Walker is the definition of the ability to do something, but not the drive to get it done,” Sharp said.

The life of Walker takes its ups and downs throughout the film, which was shot through downtown Omaha and historic Dundee. Filming began during the brutal weather in February and wrapped last month.

Casting for “Walker” was accomplished locally and began in January. Joyner said hundreds of people turned out to utilize their 15 minutes of fame.

“Walker” was produced on a volunteer basis, with few pennies to rely on. Local business donated food and supplies to help Fallen Man Productions produce the film.

“Not having a lot of money forces you to be creative. It opens up that part of your brain. A lot of times we wanted to go home because we would run into problems. If we had money, we would have thrown money at it and the problem would have gone away. But, we had to come up with solutions that didn’t cost anything, and we worked through all of it,” said Dale Heise, the film’s director of lighting.

Editing for the film will be done locally, and Joyner expects “Walker” to run between 60 and 90 minutes when it’s complete.

Joyner said he wants audiences to leave “Walker” with “a lot of questions about their lives and the decisions they’ve made. Walker may not be you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t relate to the decisions he’s faced with.”

Fallen Man Productions hopes the film will be invited to the annual Sundance Film Festival, and, ideally, be picked up by a national distributor.

“[Filmmaking] is quite possibly the hardest and coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Sharp said. “It’s like riding a roller coaster: You get to the end of the ride, and all you want to do is get back on again.”

The Reader on the Web: