An alcoholic father suffering from the early onsets of dementia gets a sweepstakes notice that he’s won a million dollars. It’s a scam obviously, but the elderly man is determined to see it through, despite his wife and older son’s protests to the contrary. What’s the youngest son to do? Perhaps trying to relate and bond on a level they’ve never connected before, as he agrees to drive his father from Montana to Nebraska to track down the prize, but many detours await, including a protracted pit stop in his dad’s hometown.
This is Alexander Payne’s sixth feature, “Nebraska,” a warm and funny, in-the-pocket dramedy about a father, a son, their extended family and their journey to find a prize that doesn’t exist (read our review from Cannes). Deadpan, emotional yet restrained, Payne’s picture stars seminal ‘60s actor Bruce Dern in the role of the irascible father, unlikely “Saturday Night Live” comedian Will Forte as his son with appearances by Stacey Keach, “Breaking Bad” star Bob Odenkirk, and as the family’s mother, the mostly unknown June Squibb. In fact, “Nebraska” is purposefully low on stars and high on neighboring flavor and personality – most of the cast is surrounded by unknown locals from its midwest shoot.
At the recent New York Film Festival screening, Payne, Dern, Forte and Squibb all sat down to discuss this funny and personal film. Here are the highlights.
Alexander Payne had been sitting on the “Nebraska” screenplay for ten years.
The “About Schmidt” director said he read the script in 2003 and intended to make it as soon as he read it, but decided to put it off for a reason. “I didn’t want to follow ‘Sideways‘ – one road trip movie with another road trip movie. I did some rewrite work right before we shot but it was all respectful of Bob Nelson‘s script. It’s relatively unchanged.”
Working with Alexander Payne is easy according to his actors.
“I was intimidated coming into the process,” Forte said of his first dramatic role after years of being known as a comedian. “But he just put me at ease, instantly. Bruce and June were the same way. Everyone was nurturing and patient and it was an awesome experience I never thought I would have in my lifetime.”
June Squibb, who also had a small role in “About Schmidt” (as Jack Nicholson’s wife who passes away early on) said coming onto an Alexander Payne set is like family. “You just felt that you were enveloped by warmth. It made it easy.”
Dern echoed the same sentiments. “[Alexander] is a privilege to work for and to work with. A lot of time you hear actors say, ‘I like to work with this one, or that one.’ He’s a director who insists you work with him,” the actor shared. “He surrounds you with two or three non-actors who are so goddamn honest, you can’t possibly start acting or performing in front of these people.”
“I would like to stop being referred to as a ‘non-actor,’ ” Forte quipped.
Bruce Dern is already a film legend, but he has high praise for Alexander Payne. He was in the director’s mind a long time ago too.
And obviously, Bruce has been keeping tabs on the filmmaker ever since his daughter Laura Dern starred in Payne’s debut. “After [watching] his first movie ‘Citizen Ruth,’ there’s not an actor alive who doesn’t want to work with Alexander Payne,” Dern definitively stated. “He makes the kind of movies that people just want to watch. It was exciting and a thrill. He sent me the script 6 months to a year after he wrote it. It stunned me because nobody’s ever thought of me on that level. The next day I went to Toys R Us and sent him a little truck that I bought him and said ‘I thought I’d make a good Woody [the main character].’ Then 9 years later…”
Tone is everything in Alexander Payne films.
There’s plot and there’s character, but tone defines Alexander Payne’s films – often they have a very particular low-key mood, and “Nebraska” is full of little, quiet moments, both emotional and funny. Payne, however, was uncharacteristically silent and often thought he didn’t know the answers to the many questions posited at him. “Life surrounds me and life is dramatic and funny at the same time and I want that same complexity in the films. I just follow my nose,” he said after apologizing about not knowing the answers about how to maintain and capture tone.
Why was the film shot in black and white?
Payne had two answers, one an intuitive gut one and another more reference-specific. “It just felt right. From the moment I picked up the screenplay I always saw the movie in black-and-white,” he said. “I always wanted to make a movie in black-and-white and I knew it would have to be [done] relatively inexpensively. “ How does it help the storytelling? “It’s just so darn beautiful,” he said. “Every day I would look at my [director of photography Phedon Papamichael] and say, ‘How can we go back to color?’ It was also my Cinemascope movie, too. And boy was that a true treat.”
Payne said the other element that helped shape mood and tone was the austere screenplay itself that was only 90 pages. “It suggested to me early Jim Jarmusch,” Payne said of the tone. “I was thinking a little bit about [Japanese filmmaker] Shohei Imamura, ‘The Insect Woman’ and ‘The Pornographers.’ The look, with action staged for camera with as little cutting as possible. I wanted it to be shot in as austere a fashion as the landscape suggested – subtly flashy in an understated way. I wanted to be elegant but minimalistic.”
Bruce Dern always has a good Elia Kazan anecdote to share. He also suggested Alexander Payne reined him in and didn’t let him get away with “Dernsies” – the Jack Nicholson term for patented Bruce Dern improvisations.
“I began a while ago with Mr. Kazan. I came into the business because I was astounded to work with him and Mr. Strasberg. This is what I got into the business to do,” Dern began. “And I haven’t been able to do it that much in 55 years.”
“I didn’t want to throw any ‘Dernsies’ in it or anything. Payne said: ‘Let us do our jobs.’ He backed it up ten minutes later by saying, ‘Don’t show us anything, let us find it.’ That’s the magic of what he does. Has it been done before? Yes. But you look at [June] coming out of the shop and him having it [linger] on that shot. Let the picture work. [Legendary cinematographer ] Haskell Wexler said that it was like watching a moving version of an Ansel Adams scrapbook.”
Dern always has a good Bob Rafelson story too.
“Curly Bob is a wonderful filmmaker,” Dern said of the producer/director Bob Rafelson who directed the bizzaro Monkees-starring trip “Head,” “5 Easy Pieces” and was an instrumental part of the maverick BBS Productions gang of the 1960s. He also directed Dern and Jack Nicholson in the movie, “The King of Marvin Gardens” which also famously switched types – Nicholson playing the meeker character and Dern playing the more boisterous one.
“He had a wonderful cinematographer named Laszlo Kovacs who wanted it to be overcast every day. So we’d wait and we’d wait and that was good,” Dern laughed. The differences between the two directors? “Alexander is approachable and patient. Curly is approachable and not quite as patient.” He said.
Derns shared an amusing story about a scene on ‘Marvin Gardens’ where Rafelson was unsatisfied with his two lead actors. On take 12, an exasperated Nicholson and Dern turned to their filmmaker and asked what he wanted exactly? “He ripped his sleeve off and said ‘I want goosebumps!’” Dern remembered. By take 17, Rafelson finally got what he wanted. “That’s a print let’s go to the other room,” Dern recalled the filmmaker saying. “Jack said, ‘Make him roll his sleeve up!’ ” The actor also said that Rafelson claimed that scene – as great as he wanted it – meant $15 million at the box-office opening weekend. “Alexander doesn’t think that way,” he said.
“Nebraksa” opens on November 15th. — Reporting by Drew Taylor