An authentic sense of place is one of the hallmarks of an Alexander Payne film.
Beyond a backdrop, location becomes almost another character in the movies of this director-screenwriter and Omaha native. He often casts smaller roles in his films with nonprofessional locals to help capture the authenticity of the place.
So when Payne, 52, announced he was directing a movie titled “Nebraska,” his home state had an extra reason for curiosity and anticipation.
Special screenings of “Nebraska” began Friday at Film Streams, Omaha's nonprofit art house movie theater downtown. As much as it is the story of an alcoholic old man and his long-suffering son on a road trip from Montana to Lincoln, it's also a microcosm of small-town life on the Great Plains.
Payne said the screenplay's portrait of his state immediately grabbed him.
“While the writer, Bob Nelson, is not from Nebraska, his parents were,” Payne said in a phone interview last week. “He understood the setting in a very affectionate and humorous way. I liked that sensibility very much.”
Payne likes filming in Nebraska. His first three movies — “Citizen Ruth” in 1996, “Election” in 1999 and “About Schmidt” in 2002 — were primarily set in Omaha.
With his eye for visuals, Payne took more than a year to scout locations and cast “Nebraska,” a small-budget movie he insisted be shot in black-and-white. It was filmed in fall 2012, mostly in small towns around Norfolk, including Plainview, Stanton, Hooper, Osmond, Elgin, Lyons and Battle Creek. Payne was looking for rustic and worn, not picturesque.
The movie is colored by rural Nebraska rather than the city sensibilities Payne is more familiar with. While he relied on Nelson for the broad brush strokes, Payne's attention to detail, ear for dialogue and bone-dry sense of humor pervade the film.
“Nebraska” pays attention to how rural Plains people talk — what they say to and about each other, what they're willing to talk about and what they will never say out loud. Their chatter — about food and crops and cars — is safe. They have a skeptical way of looking at outsiders. The men are stoic, the women strong. There's not much flash or cash.
A classic snapshot is a family dinner thrown for the main character in his old stomping ground of Hawthorne, Neb. The women, bunched in the kitchen, gab as they get the meal on the table. Cut to the living room, where a wall of men parked on recliners and sofas stare blankly at a television screen.
Phedon Papamichael's artful black-and-white cinematography, with its broad horizons, sagging barns and tired faces, accentuates a starkness and sadness in the locations that have seen more prosperous days.
Payne is often asked why he likes to film in his home state.
“Some people can't believe somebody who makes movies wants to do it where he grew up instead of New York and L.A.,” Payne said. “I just don't understand. Nobody asked Faulkner 'Why do you keep writing stories set in Oxford, Miss.? Why do you do that?'†”
Born to George and Peggy Payne in 1961, Payne grew up near 52nd and Farnam Streets. By age 14 he was shooting movies with his father's 8†mm camera, and editing them right in the camera. A graduate of Creighton Prep, he got a bachelor's degree in Spanish literature at Stanford University and studied journalism. In 1984 he enrolled in film school at UCLA. His roommate, Jim Taylor, later became his screenwriting partner for four of his films. His thesis film screened at Sundance in 1989.
Payne isn't in Omaha as “Nebraska” starts its run in his hometown. He's been busily promoting the film, which will have a gradual national rollout over the next three weeks. It opened in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.
Having just returned last Sunday from serving as chairman of the jury at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in northern Greece (Payne's heritage is three-quarters Greek), he sat for a flurry of interviews for “Nebraska” before attending its Los Angeles premiere Monday night.
Payne's last two films, “Sideways” (2004) and “The Descendants” (2011), earned Academy Award nominations for best picture, director and adapted screenplay. Payne and his co-writers won the screenplay Oscars both years. Earlier this year, Bruce Dern won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his role as Woody in “Nebraska.”
The Los Angeles premiere was on Hollywood Boulevard, part of an American Film Institute festival at the newly refurbished TCL Chinese Theatre, formerly known as Grauman's Chinese. Monday evening featured a tribute to Dern.
Since Cannes, Payne has accompanied “Nebraska” to festivals in Greece, Peru, Colorado, New York and Georgia. The father-son road-trip comedy has been cheered everywhere it screened, including Los Angeles.
“It went fine, it was good,” Payne said of the Los Angeles premiere. “Of course, what are they gonna tell me, negative things?”
He said he used to live a few blocks from Grauman's, where the Academy Awards were once held, and “dreamed of having a movie of mine play there one day. It happened last night.”
He might not have dreamed that movie would be named for his home state, the place he likes best to try to capture on film.