The Fine Art of Making Something from Nothing

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Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2014 12:00 am

This is the first in what will be an occasional series called “Ralston Goes Hollywood,” a segment focusing on Ralston natives, residents or alumni who are working in the film industry.

Escaping into the collective American fantasy that is the movies looks a little different for Jeff Overfield.

While you’re kicking back, relaxing and preparing to — in the parlance of our times — “enjoy the show,” Overfield, a 1998 graduate of Ralston High School, is edging forward in his seat, he’s looking at the things you’re not even aware are happening, he’s studying the picture like a doctor reads an X-ray.

This is, after all, his job.

“Most people, they go into a movie, they’re looking for a story, an actor, maybe good ideas,” said Overfield, who, since 2007 has been living in the nexus of all things film, Los Angeles, and working his way through union postings as a production assistant to assistant director alongside names like Spielberg, Fincher, Pitt, Whedon. “But having done what I’ve done for six years out there, I’m still paying attention to all the stuff going on that’s not the story and the actors: the lighting, the frame-to-frame things, how the visual effects work, the grips. It’s not that I’m not looking for story and ideas, and if a movie is doing its job, it’s sucking you in and hopefully, those other things aren’t at the forefront. Those movies, though, the ones that pull me in, are getting fewer and farther between the more I work in the industry. The magic isn’t what it was.”

But the idea of making that magic, the way Overfield has made it as a production assistant for several years on such movies as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Avengers” and “The Social Network,” and now as an assistant director, still thrills him.

There’s the time he was working on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic “Lincoln” and he was assigned the task of helping the first assistant director select and wrangle extras, specifically the ones who would be playing members of the 32nd U.S. Congress convening in 1862 and 1863.

“It was the first time I really ever had to do homework,” Overfield recalled. “There were 54 actors from the House of Representatives. I had to know the actor, who they were portraying and whether they were a Republican or a Democrat. It was mindblowing. It was like taking a class and to this day, I still remember more about Congress in the 1860s than I think I ever learned in college.”

The job, he explains, is like any other. There are deadlines, bosses to please, time and money to consider — but when it’s all done at the end of the day, there’s something tangible up there on the screen. Speaking of magic, Overfield describes it in those tones.

“It’s like making something out of nothing,” he said. “There are directors in L.A., true artists, who are capable of that. They’ll just pull an idea out of thin air and the next thing you know, they’ve got $30 or $40 million to make it happen. Sometimes it does get made and you’ve got a film. Sometimes — and this happens with some of the best — the studio just won’t go for it, even if it is a great idea.”

While Overfield doesn’t quite see himself in that category of the something-to-nothing crowd — “What I do is more the glue that holds the whole thing together,” he says as a matter of giving a job description — he knows he’s learning something about that mastercraft, something that, someday, is going to open new doors.

It all started right here in Ralston and the surrounding metro area. He got his first job at the old Cinema Center on 84th and Center streets. After college at Missouri State University, in 2003, he returned to the area and dabbled in his first love — music. But, as he didn’t play an instrument or sing, he shifted his focus back to another favorite: film.

Overfield started helping friends who did have musical inclinations and were forming bands to make music videos. And he met, here on the dusty plains of flyover country, a descendant of Hollywood royalty.

Dana Altman, the grandson of celebrated director Robert Altman, runs North Sea Films in Omaha. It was Altman who, having seen some promise in Overfield’s music video eye, offered the budding filmmaker a chance to go further into the realm of seeing something borne from nothing.

“I’ve run across a lot of people in the course of production and film life,” Altman said in recalling his first encounters with Overfield. “There are some people who have that internal drive to succeed. Jeff is like that. The one thing about people who succeed in the film industry, from the production assistants to the assistant directors to the directors to the producers, there’s something inherent in those folks and that’s creativity. And there are a lot creative people out there. But it’s one thing to have the creativity and it’s another thing to be creative and be able to make it happen, who have the ability and the desire and the willingness to work hard. That’s Jeff.”

One of Overfield’s first jobs in assisting Altman was the creation of a claymation scene for a music video. With nobody on his crew skilled in the painstaking process of moving tiny clay figures millimeter by millimeter and creating the desired effect, Altman recalled wondering how he was going to pull off the scene and thought about shelving it entirely.

“One morning about a week later, Jeff comes in and shows me this scene of claymation that was incredible, just what we needed,” he said. “He’s totally self-taught like that.”

As Overfield developed his creative drive with Altman, including helping on set with a feature titled “California Dreaming,” he also started examining the technical aspects of filmmaking with a company right in his own backyard, Ralston-based Lights On Nebraska, a camera and lighting company run by Craig Ladwig.

If Altman was giving Overfield insight on movie magic, from Ladwig, Overfield started learning how the filmic sausage is made.

“I just wanted to learn from anybody here who would teach me,” Overfield said. “Anyone who would let me help edit or do some lighting or be around on the shoots. I wanted to learn everything I could. There’s creating something out of nothing and then there’s having a job. I thought that if I could take advantage of the learning opportunities here in Omaha, I was putting myself in a position to be marketable in places where film work really starts to ramp up.”

Ladwig, who collaborates with Altman and other filmmakers who reside in the metro area or others who come to the area for shoots, and whose company helps local firms and businesses create television advertisements, found in Overfield an insatiable hunger to know more and do more.

“Jeff is very grounded in his attitude toward this work,” said Ladwig, who also met Overfield in that summer of 2003 when he’d returned from college. “And yet, you can very easily see that film work is his passion. He wants to do this and he’s doing it the right way. He’s known what sacrifices he’s needed to make in moving out to L.A., and he’s done that and he’s got a great future.”

In helping Overfield on a short film and also in the production of a few local TV commercials, Ladwig mentored Overfield, a film factotum in process, and provided insight on the importance of the little things when it comes to working behind the camera.

“He gets it,” Ladwig said. “A lot of this business is common sense. With Jeff’s intelligence and his grounding and a Midwestern work ethic, there’s no question in my mind he’s going to go far.”

Overfield spent three years learning every facet of production he could and honing skills across the film sets on which he worked when, one day in 2006, he got a call from an assistant director he’d met while working with Altman.

If he wanted a job, he had one. He just had to get to Los Angeles in 24 hours. Overfield hopped a plane and hasn’t looked back since. He got tapped into the unions, started logging thousands of hours and hundreds of days on set as a production assistant and, somewhere in the midst of working with those Congressional extras on “Lincoln,” he earned his assistant director card.

Glamorous as it may sound, there are still thousands more hours to come. Hundreds of more actors to keep happy, millions of moments left to ensure that time and money isn’t wasted and that billions of details in a two-hour feature film are just so.

But if there’s someone who can do it and, moreover, wants to do it, that person is Jeff Overfield, said Altman.

“I’ve never expected anything less from Jeff than to be successful in this field,” the director said. “He’s a guy who has told me: ‘Sleep’s for later.’ In his line of thinking, he knows that maybe he’s not at the top in the pecking order, but without him, without what he does, there’s nothing. Without the production assistants, without the assistant directors, we’re nowhere. There are only a few personality types who can fit well into that role.”

While happy with what he’s achieved thus far, Overfield said he’s also anticipating the next project around the corner and, maybe one day, the one that allows him to turn his own little corner of nothing into something glorious.

“I enjoy what I do,” he said. “I problem solve. I help the something come from the nothing. I’m not necessarily trying to be a director, but to me that’s what is interesting. That’s where you take it to a different level. But everybody’s got a script and even Academy Award-winning directors get turned down. If all I ever am is an assistant director, I’d say I could be pretty happy with that, but it’s not something I want to do forever. I feel with what I’ve learned, I could do a lot.”

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