His sixth feature film, “Nebraska,” began special screenings in his hometown Friday, but Omaha director Alexander Payne hasn't arrived here quite yet.
He's busy promoting the movie. But he will sit for an Omaha Press Club roasting Friday, led by “Nebraska” cast member Will Forte, as Payne becomes the latest Face on the Barroom Floor. Then on the evening of Nov. 24, Payne, Dern and Forte will all appear at the Holland Center for Feature V, Film Streams' biggest fundraising event each year. Payne is on Film Streams' board.
Without a trace of jet lag from a recent trip to the Thessaloniki Film Festival in Greece, Payne gave lively, forthright and witty answers earlier this week to every question The World-Herald put to him about “Nebraska,” filmed mostly in the Norfolk area last October and November. He talked about the script, casting, the decision to film in black and white, and the pleasures and challenges of filming in his home state. He also talked about what to expect from him next.
Q. What elements of that initial script of “Nebraska” drew you to want to make the movie?
A. First, the script was about 94 pages. I liked that it was nice and short. I liked the style of the script, what they say and do in a very austere fashion, so I could read it quickly. That's a lesson to screenwriters. Keep it readable. I liked the title, wouldn't have done it if it had been titled “Nevada.” And it had a sense of humor I liked very much, a very deadpan, dry sense of humor.
And because I'm from Omaha and not rural Nebraska, I thought it would be delightful to learn about my state, scouting locations and digging into that area around Norfolk. I was right. They say when you live in a foreign country, it's what you learn about your own country while you're living there. This movie taught me about northeast Nebraska and gave me a different perspective about Omaha.
Q. As one who grew up in the rural Midwest, I think the movie feels true to the essence of rural and small-town life. What experiences in small-town and rural Nebraska informed your take on the movie?
A. I'm an Omahan. My paternal grandmother was from Hooper, Neb., and it was very poignant and significant to me that I wound up shooting in Hooper. I thought about my great-grandparents moving there and starting a bakery before moving to Wahoo. I haven't spent much time in small-town Nebraska at all, other than driving through. One reason I enjoyed making “About Schmidt” was that it gave me an overview. And this one made me fall in love even more with Nebraska.
Q. Did you set out wanting to reflect anything in particular about your home state?
A. Not so much. I wanted to reproduce the setting faithfully onscreen. I worked hard on locations and populating the film in what we felt was an accurate, funny, dramatically believable way. Anything autobiographical would be more in the story, specifically the part I hope many can relate to: parent and child relationships, and particularly we children dealing with our own aging and our aging parents.
Q. Half your movies have been road trips. What road trips have you enjoyed taking?
A. Lots. I put over 20,000 miles on the car just scouting locations for Nebraska. When I have the time, I like taking the train and road trips by car. I like seeing the country.
Q. What did you find most enjoyable as you shot Nebraska?
A. The warmth of the people. I had this in Omaha, too, but I'm a bit more known in Omaha. Just how welcomed we were. Not by everyone, of course. There's always some crank who yells get the hell outta here. But making any movie, getting to know the people in the area is one of the most delightful aspects. Through casting and scouting locations, I'm able to weave myself lightly into the local fabric and hang out.
Q. What was the biggest challenge in shooting the movie?
A. Achieving the scope, even though it's a modest film. We photographed over four states, and even in Nebraska our locations were far from one another for movie-company travel. It's like a circus. And because I wanted to shoot in black-and-white, I had a reduced budget. Concretely that means fewer shooting days. It was a challenge to get everything I thought the film needed visually, not just in Nebraska, and do it in 36 days. And have the right weather. Even within a certain day, you could start in the sun and the clouds roll in. Suddenly the shots for a scene don't match.
Another challenge, one I welcomed, was combining highly seasoned professional actors with nonactors. We cast a large number of native Nebraskans who had never been in a movie. The challenge was to make sure audiences can't tell the difference between who's the seasoned pro and who's a nonactor.
Q. You got resistance from Paramount and agreed to cut the film's budget so you could shoot it in black and white. What made this movie so right for black and white?
A. I wish I could give you a well-reasoned answer. My best is it just felt right. After people see the movie they might also feel it would be difficult to conceive of it in color. Mom saw it at the New York Film Festival. She said making it in color would be stupid. She doesn't mince words.
Q. You've also said making a black-and-white film was on your wish list. Why?
A. Look, our rich American film heritage is largely in black and white, from the first days of cinema through the mid-1960s. There have been fewer (black-and-whites) since then, but some great ones: “Schindler's List,” “Manhattan,” “Raging Bull,” “Stranger Than Paradise.” Most films I watch are older films in black and white. It's a beautiful art form that I lament has largely left our cinema. It never left fine art photography, so why film? I'm lucky to have a career as a professional filmmaker. I knew I wanted to make at least one film in black and white. And I knew it couldn't be a terribly expensive one. This one, with its feeling of austerity, seemed right.
Q. Phedon Papamichael's cinematography on “Nebraska” is stunning. Did you and he have a learning curve to work in black and white?
A. He's a very good still photographer, as well as cinematographer. He has a great eye for that. However, we had to teach ourselves — our production designer and costume designer, too — to expand our thinking and educate ourselves what looks like what in black and white. You see it in color, but don't know what our forebears knew instinctively. We have two instruments our forebears didn't. One is a TV monitor to check how it looks, but you can't make too many final decisions on the set when the meter's running. The other is digital intermediate technology. In postproduction, we could adjust tonality to make things brighter or darker. The movie is designed for black and white, but sometimes we were using color to give us leeway in postproduction for a finer black-and-white film.
Q. This is your first feature in which you do not share a writing credit. Yet I detected your voice, and your sense of humor, on screen. How much of the script comes from your pen?
A. Well, I rewrote the entire script, either retyped without touching what Bob Nelson had written, or I'd round out sentences more to my ear, or add jokes. I added a couple new themes. The ending is mine. Bob would be the first to agree he hadn't quite cracked the ending. But everything I did was at the service of his vision and script, so I didn't take a writing credit. I had another writer, Phil Johnston (“Cedar Rapids”), take a whack at the script. Some of his jokes are in there. And there's even one Jim Taylor joke in there. (Taylor co-wrote with Payne on “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” He and Payne won a screenwriting Oscar for the latter.)
Q. Nebraska is a father-son story at its heart, and how the son views his dad changes during this story. Does any of this reverberate with your own relationship with your dad?
A. Yeah, a little bit. A lot of people can project parts of their own experience onto this film. That's not really why I made it. I liked the humor and situational absurdity of it, the chain reactions off a relatively absurd premise. Of course, when you make a film you put some of yourself into it. It becomes more personal. There are echoes of my own experience.
Q. Bruce Dern has said he wanted to play Woody Grant badly. Others, such as Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Robert Forster and maybe even Jack Nicholson, were reportedly considered. What made you decide to go with Bruce?
A. None of those other actors was considered. Bruce was the first actor who sprang to mind when I read it. When it came time to make it, I met with him twice. I still felt I had to do due diligence and meet with other actors, and I did. But he was the only guy for the part. If nothing else, just for his hair. He's a good-looking guy, but he can morph into an old prairie dog. And he can play an orneriness the character has, with a crusted-over tenderness underneath.
Q. What was it like working with Dern?
A. In general, I love working with actors of his generation — Dern, Jack Nicholson, Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Stacy Keach — all of whom were active in the film decade I admire so much, the 1970s. All those guys make my job quite easy. They know what the hell they're doing on set. And to study the director so they know what film is being made.
Q. Will Forte is known more for broad comedy. What did you see in Forte that you thought was right to play Dern's son?
A. I never would have thought of him in a million years, but he auditioned well. I believed him. He felt like someone I went to high school with. Someone who, by extension, many people might feel they went to high school with. He's relatable. His character is like Marilyn on “The Munsters,” the one normal one amid the carnival.
Q. June Squibb, as Dern's wife, is a real standout. You used her before in “About Schmidt.” She's not a household name, so how did you discover Squibb?
A. Auditions. I work the old-fashioned way. I like to meet actors in auditions. I don't assume anyone worth a damn has already been discovered or I know who they are. I met June on an audition in New York. She auditioned again for this part. I'm sure glad to have given her a part where she can really spread her wings.
Q. Among locals you cast, were there any particularly pleasant surprises?
A. Someone who's really good is Tim Driscoll from Omaha. He plays one of those lunkhead brothers (Forte's character's cousins), the taller of the two. He's Patty Driscoll's brother. Patty was in “Citizen Ruth” and played Matthew Broderick's lover in “Election.” Tim was a cop in “Citizen Ruth” many years ago.
Q. Any comment on the movie's chances for award season?
A. Not really. The movie is just coming out. I want people to see it just as a movie, not in terms of awards. I come to resent the fact that more adult films are all released in the last quarter of the year and expected to gird for battle for Oscars and Golden Globes. They may just be fragile films that need to find an audience on their own. This is a small, modest film, a comedy with some emotion in it. I want people to discover it on their own, not judge it against a slave movie or an outer space movie.
Q. Reports have surfaced that your next movie will probably be “The Judge's Will,” based on a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala story. Can you comment?
A. False. I optioned the rights to the story. I don't know what my next movie's going to be. I'll start writing in January. But I don't know on what. I want to clear my mind for a few weeks, clean out my storage spaces. I'll probably partner with Jim Taylor again.
Q. Any plans to film in Nebraska again?
A. Yes, of course. No concrete plan, but of course I'm gonna film in Nebraska again. I've got a good thing going.