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A 1996 photo from a private screening of "Citizen Ruth." From left: writers Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne with the star of the movie, Laura Dern.


Archives: That time Alexander Payne returned to Omaha to make his first movie



With Alexander Payne's latest movie, "Nebraska," opening in Omaha on Friday, we're going to be running some Payne-centric stuff all this week. We decided to go back to his beginning.

This article originally ran on Feb. 5, 1995, before Payne was an Oscar-winner and a household name (Omaha households, anyway).

* * *

Omaha native Alexander Payne is assembling the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle that he hopes will result in a feature-length film scheduled to begin shooting here in six weeks.

"I get nervous," writer - director Payne said of his debut in big - time moviemaking.

During an interview on a recent planning trip to Omaha with co-producer Andrew Stone, Payne said: "Of course, I have to worry that all the pieces are going to be in place, all the parts correctly well-cast, all the foreseen problems solved in advance. If that is all done, I will feel the right support cushion to direct comfortably. It's all in the preparation."

Directing the movie should be fun, he said - a period of creative collaboration among him, the actors and the cinematographer.

Payne, a 1979 Creighton Prep graduate, has landed star Laura Dern for the lead role. Miss Dern, known for starring roles in "Jurassic Park," "Rambling Rose," and "Wild at Heart," initially was given the script by boyfriend and "Jurassic Park" co - star Jeff Goldblum.

"Goldblum took it home, started reading it and was laughing his head off," Payne said. "He said, 'Hey, Laura, you should read this and maybe you should play the lead. She read it, liked it and had her agent call us. Then I met her.

"A bunch of others read for the lead, but I came to the conclusion that Laura was the choice. Her enthusiasm for the project has really meant a lot."

The independently produced film has two working titles - "Bigger Than Life" and "The Devil Inside." Payne describes it as "a comedy - drama about the adventures and misadventures of one week in the life a lovable, homeless addict."

Payne, who graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles film school in 1990, wrote the script after his first professional movie deal went bad.

"I wrote a script for Universal, and if they wanted to make it, I would have directed it," said Payne, who received his bachelor's degree from Stanford University.

Payne said that after Universal passed on his first script, he considered rewriting it and raising money to produce it independently. He decided to write a new script instead.

"It's basically taken me three or four years to get a film off the ground, to get the right elements in place - right talent, the right co-producer."

And the right location, which turned out to be Omaha.

Payne and Stone, working with independent Hollywood producers Cary Woods and Cathy Konrad of Woods Entertainment, picked Omaha over Austin, Texas, for a number of reasons. Among them were Payne and Stone's familiarity with the city (Stone was unit production manager for "O Pioneers!," a Hallmark Hall of Fame project filmed in Nebraska) and a big push by the Omaha/Douglas County Film Commission.

"All the time I was scouting Austin, I thought, 'This is not Omaha,' " Payne said. "I wanted it to be a relatively small Midwest city, but I was afraid all of the film infrastructure we might need wouldn't be in Omaha."

The film commission, especially staff members Julie Ginsberg and Kathy Sheppard, convinced him that Omaha is a "burgeoning film community," he said.

Stone said, "I was really pleasantly surprised on 'O Pioneers!' by how many artisans and people knew film and related subjects."

"To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, and "My Antonia," a made - for - television feature to premiere on the USA cable network in March, were filmed in Nebraska last year. In the fall of 1993, Omaha native Dan Mirvish filmed his low - budget "omaha (the movie)" on his home turf.

"I want to make this as much a native Omaha show as possible," Payne said. "I would like to shoot more than one film in Omaha. I hope this is just the first of many.

"Selfishly, I would like this to be a good experience for everyone so that film awareness, the film community and film culture can grow and flourish in Omaha. It's happened in Austin, Texas, and it's happening in places like Nashville, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Salt Lake City, Utah."

Said Stone: "The industry has really grown here the past four years."

Payne said his knowledge of Omaha is an advantage. "I'm able to bring a specific sense of place. I can scout the locations in my mind, and that comfort factor is extremely important."

The youngest of three sons of George and Peggy Payne, who still live in Omaha, 33 - year - old Payne is a lifetime film buff. He had thoughts of becoming a journalist or working in foreign service while attending Stanford, where he majored in history and Spanish literature.

In 1980, Payne studied journalism for a summer at Columbia University in New York City. Three years later, he worked for the State Department in the Bureau of Inter - American Affairs in Washington, D.C.

"Those things helped me decide that movies are what I wanted to do," Payne said.

At UCLA, Payne's thesis work, "The Passion of Martin," received critical praise on the student film circuit and played in Omaha at the old New Cinema Theater four years ago. The strength of that film was what attracted Universal's attention.

"I've loved film all my life," Payne said. "I've been working and training to be a film director for 10 years, so rather than fear or doubt, I say, 'Well, here we are.'

"I haven't directed a feature before, but I've directed, so I have a hand at what I'm doing."

Key pieces in Payne's film puzzle - securing a hotel deal, production office, local location manager and local casting director - fell into place last week, he said.

Shooting is expected to begin at the end of March. Under the best of circumstances, theatrical release would come in spring 1996.

"I'm very excited," said Payne's mother, adding: "We won't see much of him, but we wish him a great deal of luck."


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