I know Neva Cozine, one of the producers of the film Flyover Country, from one of her past lives, back when she spent her days in a tiny cubical in a downtown Omaha office building. When I got an invitation out of the blue to her film’s premiere at the Omaha Community Playhouse Nov. 8 and 9, I had to find out what she’s been up to and how she got involved in filmmaking, which led to our meeting last Saturday at Caffeine Dreams. She brought along the film’s director, Jim Fields, to fill in the blanks.
As part of the research for this column, I got a sneak peek at Flyover Country. I won’t tell you what I thought of it — I’ll leave that up to you and the film critics to make those judgments. I will say that it’s an impressive feature film that got every penny out of its $15,000 budget, 4-person crew and single-camera cinematography.
“We hacked a Panasonic DSLR that doubled the quality of its image,” said Fields about his lone camera. “A lot of local films will use a lot more equipment, dolly rails, that sort of thing. We didn’t have any of that. Luckily (cinematographer) Matt (Patterson) has a steady hand.”
Believe me, you’ll be impressed at the quality. But before we get to that, more on Cozine. Flyover Country is merely her latest project in a film career that began with Anthony Fankhauser’s homemade horror flick Nites of Ak-Sar-Ben back in 2003.
Neva said her break came at age 58 by answering an ad in The Reader looking for film crew. She signed on as a production assistant. “The first night of shooting I was afraid they’d think I was too old,” she said. Of course she had nothing to worry about, quickly finding herself traveling from Scottsbluff to the seedy Fitzgerald Apartments in north downtown Omaha, all in an effort to make Fankhauser’s vision a reality.
Since then, Cozine has worked on feature films including Lovely Still, For the Love of Amy, Ulterior Motives and Out of Omaha, as well as made two award-winning short films of her own: Duval’s Gift and Edgar, Barbara and Tuti.
She met Fields at a local film conference and ended up working on Bugeaters, his documentary about the 1890 University of Nebraska football team. Up 'til Flyover Country, Fields had only made documentaries, including 416, Saving the Indian Hills and Preserve This Seat.
“Neva was the first person to believe in this script,” he said of Flyover Country, an oddity for local productions in that the script is not a screwball comedy or slasher film. “People were telling me it can’t be made because it’s too uncommercial."
“I told him, ‘You’re pretty brave to write a script like this in Omaha,’” Cozine said. Brave because the film deals with a character struggling with issues of homosexuality. Neva, who has a gay son, said she was interested in people “learning and understanding about being gay.”
Are gay issues really that controversial in this day and age? Apparently so. Fields said he had an open casting call via Facebook and the Theater Arts Guild. “Some people stormed out of the auditions when they found out what the movie was about,” he said. “Others got offered roles and turned them down.”
In the end, he said he got lucky with his cast, which includes Mike Mecek and Myles Dabbs in the leading roles. Joined by third co-producer Shaun Vetick, shooting began June 1, 2012, at Jackson Street Booksellers and wrapped this past July in a parking lot near Creighton.
So what does a producer do? When you’re talking about a four-person crew, the answer is everything except shoot and act. “It’s a go-fer job,” Cozine said. “I helped with the lights and was the script supervisor. You do what needs to be done. Someone has to sew badges on the police uniforms; someone has to do the slate.”
Fields shook his head. “It helped having Neva there because of her experience, she knew how things should be run,” he said. “Neva knew how to run a set. For me, it was a learning experience. She taught me how to be prepared. This movie wouldn't have worked without her.”
Now with its premiere scheduled (along with a soundtrack CD release party Nov. 7 at The Waiting Room), Fields says he plans to take Flyover Country on the road. “We’ll take it on tour next year throughout the Midwest and enter it into festivals,” he said. “We’ve already been rejected by the Iowa Independent Film Festival because of the LGBT content of the film. We’ll keep submitting it to more festivals.”
What about getting distribution? “It used to be a lot easier for no-budget films with no stars to be picked up by a distributor,” Fields said, pointing at Clerks as an example. “But now the bar has been raised to commercial-film levels. You have to have stars and a multi-million-dollar budget (to attract a distributor), and it’s ruining indie films.”
At least Fields won’t be strapped with debt. Flyover Country was a pay-as-you-go production, which is one reason it took so long to make. Fields, whose day job is teaching English at Iowa Western Community College, said he taught extra classes to help make ends meet, and when things got really tight, Cozine threw money in the hat. “She saved the day.”
Cozine and Fields already are thinking about their next film — a feature about the Omaha music scene that will star local bands. With the odds against any locally produced indie films ever getting national attention or making money, why keep making them?
“Well, it’s a lot of fun,” Neva said. “Tilda Swinton said, ‘Does a movie really have to make money to be good?’ Sometimes it’s not a commercial success, but something you can be proud of, and I’m proud of this movie and its message.”
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.