“I always think I essentially make comedies,” Alexander Payne told a large crowd Sunday night at the Holland Performing Arts Center. “Even with 'The Descendants,' I tried to do that with a light touch.”
Whatever he thinks he's doing, it's working for a lot of people.
Director Payne, an Oscar-winning writer whose sixth movie, “Nebraska,” just opened, brought three cast members — Bruce Dern, Will Forte and, surprise, June Squibb came, too — to Omaha to talk about the film before a local audience. The event raised a record $300,000-plus for Film Streams, the downtown nonprofit art-house movie theater.
NPR host and author Kurt Andersen, who grew up in Omaha, as Payne did, interviewed the four about shooting the movie a year ago, mostly in northeast Nebraska, and their careers. The night quickly turned into a mutual admiration society for Payne.
Andersen said Payne's movies, including “Nebraska,” mix comedy and pathos in a way no other moviemaker is doing now, comparing his approach to a classical tradition. The only regret, he said, is that Payne, 52, has made only six movies.
“What slows me down is the screenplay,” Payne said. “I've written for myself out of desperation. The great writing now is in television. Most movies are more like cartoons, but we're in a golden age of television right now.”
Payne explained that Bob Nelson wrote the screenplay for “Nebraska.” Though Nelson is not from here, his parents grew up in Hartington and Wausa, Neb., he said.
The black-and-white movie is a father-son road picture in which Forte's character gets to know his irascible dad, Woody Grant (Dern), as they travel from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln. Squibb plays Woody's angry wife. Woody thinks he's won a publisher's sweepstakes prize.
Forte said that although he has spent his life in California (growing up and screenwriting for television) and New York (“Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock”), he felt right at home shooting in the Norfolk area for two months. He called working with Payne an amazing experience.
Dern, who has worked with great directors including Elia Kazan, Hal Ashby, Alfred Hitchcock and Sydney Pollock, went further.
“Payne's probably the best director I've ever worked with,” he said to loud applause.
The two main reasons, he said, are Payne's warm approachability on the set and the way he works with actors.
“He's right there with you,” Dern said. “He knows what (the scene) should be. If you're not real and he doesn't believe it's honest, you do it again until he believes. I trust his belief more than any director I've ever worked with.”
Squibb said she loves watching “Nebraska” and finds new things to admire in her fellow actors' performances each time.
“The script, Alexander directing — you don't get that very often,” she said with a broad smile.
As each new person appeared on the stage, the others moved down the sofa just as guests do on “The Tonight Show.” The tone of Andersen's conversation with his guests felt similar to a talk show.
Some other shared pearls:
Dern said he grew up affluent on Lake Michigan's North Shore in a family very different from the one in “Nebraska,” but every bit as dysfunctional. “I never saw my father laugh. And I never saw him cry,” he said.
His grandfather grew up in Hooper, Neb., he said, and he found that in this part of the country “it started to get very black and white. There is a sense of fairness, a sense of pride, a sense of honesty you don't find along the corridors of Lake Michigan or back east.”
Forte talked about how a movie he starred in, “MacGruber,” was a box office bomb. When Andersen asked why he thought Payne hired him, he got a big laugh:
“The term 'loser' comes up again. I think, in a way, not to demean myself, there's something to that. There was a connection I felt to the character. ... It was closer to life than anything I've ever done.”
What did he learn about Nebraska while working here? “You don't have a lot of late-night food options,” he cracked.
Dern said it irritates him when he hears people say Squibb stole scenes from him in “Nebraska.”
“You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to steal a scene from me. Number 2, she was hired to do what she does. ... She's just being the character. Without her, the movie would not be what it is.”
Squibb said she always believed her character loved her husband, despite being his harshest critic.
“I knew this woman, why she was doing what she was doing. When I saw the film, I thought 'My God, that's my mother.' She had two sisters that were crazy, too. It's sort of in my genes.”
Payne said he gave up $3 million from the movie's budget, dropping it to about $13.5 million, because he insisted on shooting it in black-and-white. Black-and-white felt right for the movie's austere aesthetic, he said.
Payne was asked what worries him most about his future career.
“Physical decay,” he said. “Filmmaking takes a lot of energy. I feel like I'm just getting started, just sharpening my pencils.”
Someday, he said, the movies he's made might be seen as minor works. “I'd like to think I've got some good stuff coming up ahead.”