They read like scenes plucked straight from a film that Kirstin Swanson Wilder’s former employer, the Hollywood trade publication Variety, might have reviewed. Call it “Cannes Hardly Wait.”
EXT. WILDER DRIVEWAY, LOS ANGELES — DAYTIME, MAY
As her husband, DAVID, pops the trunk to the family vehicle, KIRSTIN hoists and drops in two pieces of luggage. It’s a two-week trip, but she’s been to the Cannes Film Festival enough — going on a dozen times now — that she knows what she needs and what she doesn’t. And at this point, France or no, it’s mostly business, not much pleasure.
Their daughters SOPHIE, 7 but soon to turn 8, and EDEN, 9, look on. As KIRSTIN opens the passenger-side door, SOPHIE speaks up.
Mommy, are you gonna miss my birthday again?
I may need to rethink this.
CHYRON: One Year Later
EXT. WILDER DRIVEWAY, LOS ANGELES — DAYTIME, MAY
A deliberate echo of the previous scene, KIRSTIN loads her luggage into the vehicle as her daughters again look on. SOPHIE, now 8 but soon 9, speaks up.
Is this the last birthday you have to miss?
Yes, sweet child of mine. This is the last birthday I’ll miss.
MUSIC CUE: “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
FADE TO BLACK.
The latter scene played out in 2016. Wilder, a Lincoln native and 1989 graduate of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, had already decided to wrap a 24-year stint with Variety and return home to become editor of the Nebraska Alumni Association’s quarterly magazine.
It was time, she said. Time was a precious commodity during her stint in Hollywood — or wherever her job as a managing editor, and then an international one, happened to take her that week. The job kept taxing her until she was paying more in than she was getting out.
“I took this job (at Nebraska) to buy time, to be able to spend time the way I wanted instead of the way I was forced to when I lived in LA, with the traffic or the demands of the job,” Wilder said. “I traveled a lot for film festivals and worked weekends during awards-show season. I could see it sort of slipping away.”
Missing birthdays convinced her that now was the moment to grab as much family and quality time as she could, while she could. And, just as she’d hoped, her homecoming granted her much more of it. She was in the room, clapping, when Sophie blew out 10 candles on the birthday cake. She was happy.
Still, Wilder couldn’t help but occasionally flash back to her own childhood, wistful for the security of knowing that her mother would be home whenever she was, morning or evening.
“Truly, I thought (that) when I grew up, I was going to be a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “That’s what was modeled for me; that’s what my grandmother did and my mother did. So it was sort of a rude awakening that I wasn’t going to get to do that.”
For all its many tolls, the pandemic has allowed Wilder, even momentarily, to slip into a timeline in which she has the time with her daughters that her mother had with her.
“What 2020 has given me is this amazing gift to be home with them,” she said. “Since moving to Lincoln, I was able to take them to school in the morning, but (now) I’m home after school. That time is so important, because they come home and they’re excited about this or frustrated about that. It just gives me a new insight into the adults they are becoming. I am now physically present when that happens and can be involved in a way that I never was before. It makes me so, so happy.”
Which isn’t to say that Wilder would trade the time spent with one of the most famous, oldest trades in the business. It was thanks to Variety, after all, that she met many of the ’80s idols she grew up watching. Kevin Costner may have starred in “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams” and “The Untouchables,” but he wasn’t beyond chatting with Wilder in the back of a darkened theater after a movie premiere. Tom Cruise might be Maverick, but he was also open to trading opinions on how much money the tooth fairy should leave.
And if working for Variety sapped family time, it did give Wilder a chance to share some Hollywood privileges with her loved ones.
“A good example is Julie Andrews — who’s lovely on every level,” Wilder said. “I interviewed her quite a few times. In one of these instances, my mom was with me. (Julie) had just written a book with one of her daughters, and there was a book-launch party at Spago. I went to interview her, and my mom’s standing next to me. My mom looks just like me, and (Andrews) says, ‘Oh, is this your mom? Well, why don’t we all sit down together?’
“So Julie Andrews and her daughter, and me and my mom, sit down at a booth and talk and eat hors d’oeuvres and have drinks — which is crazy, right? The fact that I got to do that, and do it with my mom, was incredibly special.”
“I was absolutely not the best journalist. I’m not a particularly good writer. But he was able to show me where I excelled. I never knew you could just be an editor; I thought you had to be a reporter.”
Pagel also helped set Wilder up with internships, first at the Raleigh News & Observer, then the St. Petersburg Times, that maintained the professional course she had set. When she received job offers from both the Long Beach Press-Telegram and Variety — she thought of it as a “bizarre little trade paper” at the time — it was Pagel who nudged her to follow her instincts and give the latter a shot.
“Throughout my years,” she said, “I would write letters to him when I would get big promotions, just saying, ‘Thank you.’”
After she and her family moved to Lincoln, Wilder again reached out to her mentor, now in his 90s. And she championed his nomination for the Nebraska Alumni Association’s Doc Elliott Award, which Pagel received just a few months ago.
When she began working at the Wick Alumni Center, Wilder would joke that, as someone who got her start in journalism just two buildings over at The Daily Nebraskan, she didn’t make it very far. But proximity to her old stomping grounds also means proximity to her mother and sister, both of whom live in Lincoln.
Then she revealed another thematic flourish worthy of a Hollywood ending: She can see her sister’s home from the window of her home office.
“I get to see my family all the time, and we just do life together. We’re basically raising our four children together with our husbands,” she said. “The time I get to spend with them is completely delightful, and I don’t take that for granted.”