Interview with writer Leo Adam Biga

Writer Leo Adam
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,, 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
Leonard Maltin:
“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.”
Alexander Payne:
“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
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
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
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
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?
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.

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