UNO alumnus publishes book about Omaha filmmaker Alexander Payne


By Krystal Sidzyik, Entertainment Editor


Few Nebraska filmmakers have enjoyed the success that Omaha native Alexander Payne has. The filmmaker is most known for his comedy-drama films “About Schmidt” and “The Descendants.” But those aren’t his only films. Leo Adam Biga, UNO Alumnus, had his eye on Payne from the beginning when Payne made his directorial debut in 1991 with his student thesis film “The Passion of Martin.”

Biga graduated from UNO in 1982 with a degree in Journalism. During his time at UNO, Biga was heavily involved with the student organization film program.

“This is going back a ways, so there was no cable TV to speak of,” Biga said. “There were no VCR’s really, so almost any college campus had the equivalent of a student program organization that put on a film program, or film series. The one at UNO had been around for some years and by the time I entered UNO in 1976, I was already a confirmed a film buff.”

Biga applied for the position to run the film program and got it. His duties included negotiating with film distributors, selecting films to screen and doing all the publicity himself.

“I became really wrapped up in that,” Biga said. “From 1979 to 1982, my studies suffered a little bit because I was just so consumed by that and it was a lot of work. I felt more passionate about that than I did about my journalism studies. I still got pretty decent grades in all, and there were a few professors at UNO that definitely had an impact on me.”

One of the professors was the late Bob Reilly, who was a communications professor at UNO.

“[Reilly] is very well known name still to this day in journalistic and public relations and advertising circles,” Biga said. “He was a mentor to me as he was to many people and continued to be so for many years after I left college. He was the one who most encouraged me in my freelance journalism, when I started on that path.”

During Biga’s time at UNO, he briefly contributed to the Gateway, but only for part of a summer, he said. After graduating in 1982, Biga worked for a performing arts organization, no longer in existence, as a “gopher.”

“I can’t recall if I ever got to actually write anything,” Biga laughed. “I then got a real job as the assistant public relations director at the Joslyn Art Museum. I was the assistant for two years then I became the director another two years. Anything in a written form that came out of the museum, within those four years, came from my typewriter.”

Biga also did some film programming during his time at the Joslyn.

“I was always looking for opportunities to feed that habit and that passion [of film]” Biga said.

Biga stopped working for the Joslyn around 1988. He then got on the New Cinema Cooperative, a non-profit film presenting organization in Omaha. He served on the board for the last four years of its existence.

“During that time I read something in the local daily, about this Omaha native, Creighton Prep graduate, Stanford University graduate, who had a thesis film out called the ‘Passion of Martin’ which was playing film festivals at the time and it was getting some good press.”

Biga suggested to the board that they screen the film so they converted a storefront in North Downtown into a movie theatre.

“I don’t remember who came or how many came, but I remember being impressed by the film, so I made a note that said this is someone to pay attention to.” Biga said

The next encounter Biga had with Payne came in the form of a cover profile story in the Reader in mid 90’s.

“It was written by a former local television news anchor turned writer and I thought that his piece didn’t do Payne justice,” Biga said. “It almost kind of pissed me off. I determined that the next chance I had, I would approach Payne and interview him.”

A few years after that, Big approached Payne while he was gearing up to make his second feature film “Election.”

“We met at McFosters Natural Kind Café,” Biga said. “He gave me a couple hours and it was a really great meeting. I interviewed him in 1997 and the cover profile piece appeared in January of 1998 in ‘The Reader’. That was the beginning of this kind of relationship between me the reporter keenly interested in film and him as an emerging important filmmaker.”

Biga spent the next 15 years covering Payne’s work. Biga was invited to spend a week on the set of Payne’s film “Sideways.” There, Biga had complete access to Payne and the actors on the set.

“As I explain in my book, I had that privileged opportunity to literally stand next to him as he directed,” Biga said. “I had complete entrée access and it forever spoiled me.”

After “Sideways,” Payne went on a seven-year hiatus until the release of “The Descendants” in 2011.  The film won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as two Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture.

It wasn’t until the mid 2000’s when Biga decided he needed to do something with his collection of stories he had on Payne. It only made sense to publish the stories because Payne’s star was ever rising, Biga said.

Biga’s book titled, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012” is the first comprehensive book that looks at Payne’s creative process. The book is independently published but can be purchased online and will be available in select stores. The book price is $19.95. For more information about the book visit, Biga is scheduled to appear for book signings at House of Loom Oct. 3 at 7 p.m., The Bookworm Oct. 7 at 1:30 p.m and The Brandeis Oct. 9 at 9 p.m.

“[Payne] takes a step back and allows us to witness how normal people cope and deal with a situation,” Biga said. “Sometimes you do okay and sometimes not so okay. It’s just like real life, some of its dramatic and sad and some of its funny and absurd and a little bit surreal. He always talks about being after the truth, bottom line, that’s what it’s all about for him is capturing the truth. Whether you like Payne films or not, I think you have to acknowledge that he captures a sense of truth really well.”