“I believe in movies,” Alexander Payne emphatically states during our interview at the Savannah Film Festival over the weekend. The director was not only on hand to present “Nebraska,” which served as the opening film of the festival, but also to receive the Outstanding Achievement in Cinema award, presented by the movie’s star, Bruce Dern. And Payne’s passion for film is clearly present in his approach for his latest effort. The road trip story about a stubborn, determined father (Dern) and his put-upon son (played by Will Forte) journeying to claim a sweepstakes prize, is presented in black and white, and shot in widescreen—certainly not the usual elements one expects these days in a movie that blends drama, comedy and Payne’s always focused eye on the textures of the Midwest.
However, as Payne shared, during his pre-production process on “Nebraska,” he was already thinking of a big visual canvas to present the story, screening films with an eye on their photography and use of natural light. Ranging from “Sweet Smell Of Success” to “Hud” to “Manhattan” to “Paper Moon,” Payne’s diverse choices all shared a common thread of being wonderfully lensed. But it wasn’t just the opportunity to embrace visuals in a new manner that attracted Payne to take on the script by Bob Nelson.
“This script was suggesting a movie I had never seen before,” Payne explained. “I wanted once to make classical films, but also movies I have not seen before. So I had never seen ‘Nebraska’ before and I didn’t know exactly what it would be, and if you don’t know how they should be, that’s how films become then sui generis, they become their own things.”
Helping “Nebraska” achieve that feeling came through in the casting, with Payne utilizing a strong handful of non-actors in supporting roles, coming from the same Midwest setting the film takes place in. But leading them all is an actor who takes the role of a lifetime and runs with. “Mr. Bruce Dern is the actor who’s name first lept to mind when I read the script nine year ago,” Payne said. And Dern lives and breathes Woody Grant, a married man and father whose mind is slowly slipping into old age, finding layers of sensitivity in a man who ultimately wants to do one last thing right in a life that has been filled by wrongs. It’s great piece of acting, but one that finds him playing against an actor not known for his dramatic work.
As his son, “Saturday Night Live” veteran Will Forte puts away all of his comedic tools and exposes a gentleness we haven’t see from the actor before. “I believed him,” Payne said of his decision to go with Forte. “He has a goodness that just comes out in real life and in film, and I found him very relatable.”
And the skill by the leading duo, and the aspiration to authenticity, makes “Nebraska” stand uniquely apart from the rest of the fall and awards season films, and not just aesthetically. It’s a complex character piece, a portrait told against a backdrop from a part of the country that doesn’t go on view often enough at the multiplex. There is no star-studded ensemble or topical subject matter and it’s told unhurriedly, yet directly. That being said, the film also marks the lowest budget Payne has worked with since “Election.” And the director acknowledges that while his success had made it a bit easier to pull the resources together for his films, the sandbox that pictures like “Nebraska” exist within, is getting smaller.
“The trouble is that there aren’t more literate, intelligent comedies and dramas being made over $25 or $30 million dollars. They all now have terribly shrink-wrapped budgets, so there’s not much in between the very small films and the very big ones,” Payne reflects. And he points to David O. Russell’s forthcoming “American Hustle” as the type of movie the studios should return to the business of making more often.
“I told a studio executive the other day, where’s ‘Out Of Africa’ today? Where’s ‘The English Patient’ today? Where’s ‘All The President’s Men’? Those literate, human, interesting stories that take a little money to get it right,” he continues. And moreover, Payne rejects the notion that audiences may not be interested in those kinds of movies. “I totally believe if you build it, they will come.”
But with studios investing less in dramas, the past few years have seen a tidal wave of acting and directing talent from the movie world, making their way toward television. And it’s a fact not lost on Payne, but there are still some things he believes you can only do at the movies. “We still have wonderful people doing wonderful things, but it’s mostly on TV, because the costs are lower. But you can’t do things of scale on television,” he said. And while TV offers the opportunity of “endless onion peeling of character” Payne says that movies allow storytellers to “try and get across things with the same impact, but with great narrative economy, and larger visual scale. That’s why I still like movies.”
And Payne does entertain thoughts about telling a story that may involve effects work. For a while now, he’s had the high concept social satire “Downsizing” developing, but a fallout of financing and other projects taking priority have kept in on the backburner. The story would follow a married couple who are low on money and decide they can have a much nicer life retiring as little people, and undergo an operation to shrink themselves. It’s a project that would require some visual effects, and should he go down that road, Payne wants to make sure he puts an authorial stamp on the process.
“Visual effects are tedious for someone like me to learn, but it also it all keeps getting easier and cheaper as time goes by. But when I do work in visual effects, I don’t want to do it where you get bits from different visual effects houses, and pre-visualize everything by the numbers,” he explained. “Look at what [Alfonso] Cuaron just did with ‘Gravity’ or [Stanley] Kubrick with ‘2001’ or what [James] Cameron does. I mean, I’m not Cameron, nor do I want to be that involved and really know how it works, but I want to do it in a very organic way so that the resulting visual effects are genuinely new and specific to that film.”
It’s certainly a tantalizing prospect from a director who clearly has more he wants to say in the medium of movies. “These first six films have been etudes, just practicing scales,” he modestly states about his filmography so far. And if that’s the case, we can’t wait to see what he does with a full symphony.
“Nebraska” opens on November 22nd. The Savannah Film Festival continues through November 2nd.