[Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” world premiered and won its lead star, Bruce Dern, the Best Actor award. It opens in select theaters this Friday, November 15.]
With this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival winding down (it concludes on Sunday), it’s easy to forget there are still some heavy hitters left to premiere in the Competition, one of which, Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” screened this morning for press before its gala later on. Warmly received by the audience in attendance, who clapped enthusiastically right through to the end of the credits, the black and white family dramedy is smaller in scale than Payne’s last Oscar-winning effort “The Descendants,” but no less touching, wry and truthful in its depiction of a fraught family dynamic.
“Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte and acting legend Bruce Dern — in a career rejuvenating role that could bring him some deserved awards attention later down the line — star as a father and son on an aimless mission to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize that
doesn’t exist. Having received a scam letter in the mail, Woody (Dern) continually wanders away from his
home in Montana to claim his wealth, upsetting his wife Kate (June Squibb). Growing weary of picking
up his father on random street corners, David (Forte) — a down-on-his-luck
electronics salesman — decides to drive his dad to Lincoln, Nebraska
while stopping at their relatives’ home along the way.
For Payne this marks the first time he’s helmed a feature he didn’t have a hand in writing. As he revealed at the film’s press conference immediately following the first screening, Payne, a Nebraska native (he grew up in Omaha), had come across Bob Nelson’s script nine years ago. “I had read the script while making ‘Sideways,'” he explained, “but I was so sick of shooting in cars that I didn’t shoot this after. You make a film at a given moment in time.”
While he said he was grateful for his personal Nebraska connection to the screenplay, Payne stressed that that wasn’t the sole reason he came on board. “The son wants to offer his elderly father a moment of dignity,” he said. “My
parents are getting on and it’s a question that affects me because I’d
also like them to grow old with complete dignity. Old age can diminish
us, and make us lose our dignity. We have to hold on to it.”
Like Noah Baumbach’s similarly small-scaled “Frances Ha” (now in theaters), “Nebraska” is shot in beautiful black and white, lending a timeless feel to the drama that calls to mind Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” a film Payne cited as an inspiration for this project. “It just seemed like the right thing to do for this film,” Payne said of his reason for the surprising choice. “I’ve always wanted to make a black and white film.”
Getting Paramount Vantage, the film’s studio, on board with his decision predictably wasn’t so easy. “It took some discussion with the studio to get them to agree to black and white with a budget big enough so I could make a decent film,” he said. “We did settle on a budget less than it would have been had the movie been in color. They all said, ‘Look, we want to spend as little as possible but we want you to have the tools to make it.”
The look of “Nebraska” and Payne’s absense as a writer aren’t the only aspects of the production to surprise. The casting of Forte as the put-upon son no doubt caught many off guard when it was announced, given that the actor is best known as the titular buffoon in the action comedy “MacGruber”; not as a thesp who can go head to head with an actor as revered and experienced as Dern, an Oscar nominee with over 140 film credits to his name.
“I never would have thought of Will in a million years,” Payne admitted, “but he auditioned well. He communicated a ready sincerity, sweetness and damage that I thought would be good for the character. We were also putting together a family; I wanted some family resemblance.”
For his part, Dern said, “Jack Nicholson is probably the best partner I’ve ever had in a movie, but Will is right on his shoulder because this man’s support [pointing to Will] that he gave to me, and knowing that he felt he was on a strange ground… If I could hook him and Laura [Dern, his daughter who was in attendance] up that would be perfect [because] at the end of a movie, I felt I had a son.”