This morning, Alexander Payne‘s black and white, father/son roadtrip film, “Nebraska,” debuted in Cannes. Starring the unlikely trio of Bruce Dern, comedian Will Forte and Stacy Keach, “Nebraska” centers on a poor old man (Dern) living in Montana who repeatedly escapes from his house to try to go to Nebraska to collect a sweepstakes prize he thinks he has won. Frustrated by his increasing dementia, his family debates putting him into a nursing home — until one of his two sons (Forte) finally offers to take his father by car, even as he realizes the futility of it all. It’s a comedy, and while our reviewer didn’t necessarily love it, she called it a “small-scale quixotic adventure about the importance of dreams,” and coming from Alexander Payne it’s probably worth giving a shot, even if it didn’t surprise us as much as we’d like.
In preparation for the film Payne said he watched “Coming Home” starring Bruce Dern and the black and white Peter Bogdanovich films, “Paper Moon” and “The Last Picture Show” among others. The director also said, working with Dern was one of his best experiences ever and likened him to another legend he’s worked with: “Dern and [Jack] Nicholson, we had a similar way of working which was many many weeks before shooting we would hang out together and talk about everything but the film so in the moment of shooting it could just flow,” he said.
And there were many more insights. Here’s nine highlights and dollops of wisdom from today’s “Nebraska” press conference in Cannes with Payne, Dern, Forte and June Squibb, who plays the family matriarch.
1. “Nebraska” was delayed for 9 years
Alexander Payne had done a couple of road trip movies — “Sideways” and “About Schmidt” — back-to-back and this was one of the reasons “Nebraska” had to sit on the shelf. “I had the script for this while I was making ‘Sideways,’ but I was so sick and tired of shooting in cars by the time ‘Sideways’ was finished that I didn’t want to make this one right away, that’s why it’s been a few years,” he explained. “And I’m glad it’s been a few years because of how it worked out.”
2. Why was the film shot in black and white? Payne explains his decision and how it affected his budget.
“I wasn’t expecting that question at all,” Payne quipped sarcastically when asked why he chose black and white for this picture. “The visual style was very different [from the previous road trip movies I made] and that was kind of my window into the picture: how I’m going to shoot it. I wanted to shoot this one with a rather austere, plain, direct visual style.”
“It’s such a beautiful form, and it’s really left our cinema because of commercial, not artistic, reasons; it never left fine-art photography. This modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white, a visual style perhaps as austere as the lives of its people,” he continued.
It’s been well-documented that Payne had to negotiate with the studio to shoot in black and white and it affected his overall budget. And one of the journalists even quipped, that it wasn’t the most commercial format to shoot in these days. “Yes, it took some discussions with the studio — Paramount, in this case — to get them to agree to let me make it in black and white at a budget with which I could make a decent film,” he said. “Filmmaking in America is quite expensive, at times much more expensive than I think it should be. And yes, we did settle on a budget less than it would have been if it had been in color, but it was still at a rate with which I could feel comfortable.”
3. Will Forte felt outside of his comedic comfort zone.
When Forte was first cast in “Nebraska,” eyebrows were raised. After all, this is an ‘SNL‘ comedian whose biggest role to date is arguably the ludicrously silly “MacGruber.” And even though Forte went for the role himself, he was still trepidatious after he got the part. “I was somewhat intimidated by the process because it was out of my comfort zone a bit and he was so patient, encouraging, supportive, it was a wonderful experience,” he said. A journalist asked why he was out of his comfort zone and he explained the obvious. “I’m used to doing a bunch of crazy comedies,” he said to laughter. “This was just not something I thought was possible, to do a movie with the caliber of a director like Alexander Payne and these actors. It was just a dream come true.”
4. And Payne admitted he never thought of Forte for the role, but the comedian convinced him otherwise.
“I never would have thought of him in a million years, but he auditioned well,” Payne admitted candidly. “And I just believed him. And he communicates a ready sincerity, sweetness and also a damage that I thought would be good for the character. In life he has a wonderful sincerity that I thought would work.”
Payne also noted that he and the casting director wanted actors who would look somewhat similar, and he said there was a vague resemblance between Dern and Bob Odenkirk who plays one of his siblings in the movie. “I wanted some family resemblance,” he stated.
5. Bruce Dern called Payne one of the six “genius” directors he worked with.
While he’s worked with cinematic titans like Hal Ashby and John Frankenheimer (whom he referenced and gave nods to), Bruce Dern put Payne in the company of six other “geniuses” he had worked with — Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Trumbull, Francis Ford Coppola, and somewhat surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino, even though Dern was cast, the “Django Unchained” role was so tiny most missed it (someone must have read our casting suggestions).
Dern had effusive praise for Payne. “I’ve never had much of a relationship with my father, but at the end of this movie, I found my father. And that’s him,” he said pointing at Payne. “You have to put [in] your faith that you have a guide. And when I got that trust that I could [do] that and dare to fail, because [these other director’s I’ve worked with] are gifted. But the difference is the others [like Ashby and Frankenheimer] all pushed you to the edge with those risky choices and they have a butterfly net with which they catch you in and throw you back up.”
But Dern said Payne was exceptional above all others. “This man goes down to where you are, picks you up in his arms, brings you back on the edge and says, ‘Let’s make magic.’ And that’s the difference.”
6. Alexander Payne may revisit his sci-fi movie soon.
While Payne did return in 2011 with the very celebrated “The Descendants,” the media still wanted to know why between 2004 and 2011 there were no feature length efforts from the “Sideways” director. Part of it was because circa 2008, Payne was attempting to put on an ambitious global-concerned sci-fi-ish satire called, “Downsizing” about an era where people shrink themselves down to miniature size so they can minimize their carbon footprint and not deplete the earth of its resources so fast. It even had a cast including Paul Giamatti, Reese Witherspoon, Sacha Baron Cohen and more. But the project was waylaid because of budget concerns. Payne addressed the picture and what happened exactly. Not to get too hopeful for it, but Payne also said he was location scouting last year, so that’s a good sign.
“The reason there was a long gap between the ‘Descendants’ and ‘Sideways’ was Jim Taylor, my co-writer, and I were working on a sort of science-fiction satire screenplay that took much more work than we had reckoned,” Payne explained. “Part of it would take place in Norway, so I was in [that] beautiful country last year having a look and I’ll get back to [that project] at some point, possibly in the near future.”
Payne once described it as his “epic masterpiece,” and having read the script ages ago, we’d give anything to see it come to fruition.
7. Bruce Dern performed no “Dernsies” during production.
Dern was asked, somewhat awkwardly, when was the last time he had the lead part in a movie, which led him into a particularly funny tangent about his acting style in the movie.
“You mean the lead in a movie that ever was witnessed by human beings in the theater? I would say about 25 years,” he said to big laughs. “I’m 75, 76 years old I think, and I was delighted and thrilled [to be chosen for the part].” Dern suggested it was the role of a lifetime, but he had to stick to what was on paper and what Payne was going for. “I realized that his vision and my vision could be the same if I would behave myself and not put in a lot of ‘Dernsies’ and little things that [adopts mischievous Jack Nicholson voice] Mr. Nicholson and I would do together. I relished that and he strove for that.”
“Occasionally I would get out of switch and he’d switch me for it,” he continued and explained that there were two things in “Nebraska” that he did that he never did in any other movie he’s acted in. “One: There’s not one word of dialogue I said that wasn’t in the script and there are no ‘Dernsies’ unless they were encouraged. Like taking a pee on the side of the road which he felt that was essential and so did I.”
8. “Nebraska,” is actually the second time Payne has worked with a Dern family member.
“He gave me a phenomenal gift: to be intimate in what we were doing and show it to others. Our hearts were co-mingling,” Payne said generously about his collaboration with Dern, praising the actor for giving him his full trust. “I had the same experience 17 years ago with his daughter [Laura Dern] on a little-seen, but lovely film, ‘Citizen Ruth.’ Mostly because of her performance and then I had that with her father.”
“Both Derns will do anything that you ask them to do,” Payne continued. “Laura was asking the other day, ‘What was it like working with dad?’ I said, ‘Well, it was like this: at one point he was in a car and the only direction I gave was, ‘Bruce, please put yourself in a pathetic crumpled heap in the car.’ And he did it. And there was a wonderful [simple] communication and that’s what I look for in actors that I work with.”
“Nebraska” comes out later this year on November 22 via Paramount Pictures. Expect an Oscar campaign for the film and its leads.