Local color, of the achingly human variety, is where Alexander Payne’s new black and white film Nebraska most deeply comes to life.
After fall festival premieres abroad and across the U.S., Payne’s coming home to show off the film named for his native state and primarily shot and set here. Nebraska had an exclusive limited run at Film Streams. On Nov. 24, Payne joins stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte at the Holland Performing Arts Center for the Film Streams fundraiser, Feature V, that will find the troika interviewed on stage by “Studio 360” host and novelist Kurt Andersen. (Editor's Note: It was reported in the print version of this story that Feature V is sold-out. IT IS NOT! You can still get tickets here. We apologize for this error.)
The following day Payne and Dern travel to Norfolk, Neb., the production’s base camp last fall while the project filmed in nearby Hartington, Plainview and environs, to premiere the picture there.
Oscar-winner Payne is a stickler for the truth and with the by-turns elegiac and silly Nebraska he went to extreme lengths finding the people and places that ring true to his and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s vision of Midwest America.
“This is the most authentically Nebraska feature film I’ve released to date,” says Payne, who previously made Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt in-state.
Casting director John Jackson and Payne searched long and hard for the right players to animate the oddball yet familiar characters Nelson created on the page. In a rare star turn winning him much acclaim Bruce Dern so fully inhabits his old codger of a character, Woody Grant, that despite the actor’s well-known face and voice he disappears into the part to become just another of the story’s small town denizens.
Dern plays Woody as written: a taciturn man of stoic roots and repressed pain long alienated from everyone around him. Feeling a failure near the end of his life, he’s desperate for some validation and so gets it in his head that he’s a sweepstakes winner. His son David, played by Will Forte, takes him on an epic journey to claim the prize. Amid the missteps and detours comes discovery, empathy and closure. As their strained relationship warms the son gives his father a gift born of understanding, forgiveness and love.
One of the reasons Payne says Dern leapt to mind when he originally read the script a decade ago is that like the actor’s actress daughter Laura Dern, who starred in Payne’s feature debut Citizen Ruth, he doesn’t worry about what he looks like on screen. To convincingly play the gone-to-seed Woody the actor inhabiting the role had to look a wreck.
“Those Derns don’t have vanity,” Payne says admiringly. “They’ll do anything, they want to do anything. When working they’re more interested in hitting a certain level of truth, an often ugly truth or pathetic truth, and now you’re talking my language.”
About what made Dern the right fit, Payne says, “Bruce is a handsome guy when he’s cleaned up and obviously as you can see in the film when he’s not cleaned up he can really look like a coot and a weirdo. If you took many other actors and tried to do the same thing they’d look fake. The guy would have to portray someone cut off from others and lost in his own world. Woody’s probably been like that somewhat his whole life but as a young man they just thought he was reticent. Now he’s a coot and ornery and pissed off at himself that he hasn’t done anything with his life and now he’s about to start taking a dirt nap. I think that’s certainly what’s driving Woody’s crazy mission in some part.
“When I thought about who could communicate that I thought of Bruce.”
Payne felt Dern could express the two sides of Woody as both prick and pushover who can’t refuse doing favors, even if it means being taken advantage of. He also detected “a certain childlike nature” in Dern that aligned with Woody’s fragility.
“I think within Woody’s ornery crust there is something of a child – of a very disillusioned and disappointed child.”
Indeed, we first meet Woody as he’s running away from home.
“There’s also a sweetness about Woody and Bruce is a sweet guy. He hasn’t often played that.”
Dern acknowledges it’s a departure for him. “Throughout my career I’ve been flamboyant in a lot of roles, especially flamboyantly evil, and there’s a certain style that goes with that.” Nebraska called for him to be a dull, muted, passive presence.
“What the role demanded was a character who appeared to not be touched too much or too little,” he says, “and probably not touched at all. And if he touches other people it’s without planning to do it. He’s just who he is and he’s always going to be that way. I think he’s a fair man, Woody, and that’s another thing I based the character on a lot. Because he’s fair he believes what people tell him because he doesn’t know why anybody would want to lie to him about anything.”
The tangibles and intangibles of a character go into any casting decision. “When you cast someone in a lead you’re not casting just his or her ability to act,” says Payne. “you’re casting the substance or essence of their person. There’s two things going on simultaneously seemingly contradictory but not. One is you want them to become that person in the script yet at the same time not act.”
Dern says Payne has an uncanny way of communicating what he wants, variously tapping “your strengths and weaknesses and sometimes invading your privacy” to extract the emotion or tone he’s after.
Actor’s Studio veteran Dern believes he achieved a progressive in-the-moment reality in Nebraska he’d never accomplished before on a film.
“I’ve always wanted to be a human being and just kind of acting-wise leave myself alone and not perform and I don’t think there’s really a moment in the movie where I perform – in other words take it above the context of what it really is. The first day of the movie Alexander said to me, ‘I’d like you to let Mr. Papamichael (cinematographer) and I do our jobs,’ meaning don’t show me anything, let me find it with the camera, and that’s what he did and that’s what you see.
“That doesn’t mean I wasn’t acting. It was as hard a role as I’ve had to take on but I feel I owed it to the material and to my career for just once in my life to try and have as many consecutive moment-to-moment pure moments of behavior. That’s what I began when I worked with Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasberg in the Actor’s Studio – how much moment-to-moment real behavior can you have? And I think in Nebraska I’ve done far and away the most I’ve had in an entire film.”
Forte, a relative newcomer to acting after years writing for television, says he learned a lot from his co-star. “Bruce would always say, ‘Just be truthful,’ and that always sounded like acting mumbo jumbo to me coming in but for some reason the way he would explain it and describe it it made sense. There’s such an honesty that comes from his performance and all the performances that it really taught me a lot to watch everyone work.”
Dern says Payne lived up to what his daughter Laura and his old acting chum Jack Nicholson, who starred in the director’s About Schmidt, told him about the filmmaker: “They both said in separate conversations he’ll be the best teammate you’ve ever had. They were right. I feel it’s the best team, overall, I’ve ever had.”
Payne, whose sets are famously relaxed, says he also casts with an eye to who will “be nice to work with” and contribute to the playfulness he believes essential to good filmmaking. “I want to be there to play. I don’t know exactly how it (any scene) should be, I’m there to sort of say, ‘Oh, well, let’s try this and let’s try that, nudging the machine toward a certain direction. It’s not all preconceived, you’re discovering it day by day, so I think you want actors who are willing to have a sense of, Let’s be playful and free. It’s all about having fun, and that will create something none of us have thought of exactly.”
Dern says he’s glad it took nearly a decade to get the film made – the project came to Payne as the filmmaker was setting up Sideways – because “I wasn’t ready to play this role a few years ago.” The passage of time put some more natural wear and tear on Dern, both physically and emotionally. The limp he walks with in the film is real, if exaggerated, and the way Woody leaves things unsaid is something Dern says he’s been guilty of himself and regrets.
Similarly, Payne’s personal life caught up with the experience of David in Nebraska as an adult child dealing with aging parents. Payne’s father is in a nursing home and his mother recently survived a serious health scare.
“I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folks,” Payne says. “Everyone I know of my generation at that age has parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy. How we take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, and how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off, all those questions. It wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal. The fact that I had that much more life experience for this film with respect to my parents, I think helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”
Payne says the bottomed-out economy also enhanced the austere shooting style and stark look of the film, adding, “Those winds blew their way into the film as well and it becomes more of a Depression-era film.”
Undoubtedly some will take umbrage at the film’s portrayals of quirky. salt-of-the-earth types. But if the strong reception the picture’s received at the Cannes, Telluride and New York film festivals, among others, is any indication, than most audiences realize Payne and his collaborators sought archetype, not caricature in bringing to life small town inhabitants and the dysfunctional Grant family.
“I hope what people take away from this movie is his genuine love for Nebraska, because he really does love Nebraska,” says Forte.
Dern calls the film “a love poem” to Nebraska from Payne.
Payne, Nelson, Jackson, Papamichael, editor Kevin Tent assorted other crew and the ensemble cast all committed to realizing authentic portraits of this comic-dramatic Midwest Gothic tale.
As Payne is both a writer and a director he made his own pass on the Nelson script. He’s particularly proud of the simple yet sublime and nearly wordless ending he hit upon that may just go down as one of the most memorable and moving conclusions in the annals of American cinema. A series of telling looks are exchanged that say more than any words can, He’s pleased too by his handling of the film’s black and white and wide screen that help make Nebraska an expressionistic experience for the way he and Papamichael evoke mood from light, shadow, landscape and framing. The juxtaposition of persons and places carries meaning.
But what Payne’s most eager to talk about is how Nebraska lives and breathes on the strength of its casting and melding of actors and extras.
“Whatever achievements this film Nebraska may or may not have for me its greatest achievement is its most significant marriage of professional and nonprofessional actors and nonreactors because to create that world it’s dependent equally on production design and casting. That’s what suggests that world is that flesh. We spent over a year doing it so that they all seem like they’re in the same movie. Finding those vivid nonactors takes time.
“Official preproduction is going to start maybe 15 weeks out but I need casting and location scouting to start many, many weeks before that and I do a lot of the scouting way in advance of a greenlight. Whenever I’d have three free days I’d just take off in my car around the state.”
He’s come to know rural Nebraska quite well. It’s why he’s confident he cast not only the right locales but the right faces and voices. He goes so far as to say, “Casting is the most important thing” and “The best thing I do as a director is cast. You can’t f___ up casting. You’ve got to get the right people in every part and of course the leads and the secondary, tertiary parts have to be exactly right. It’s creating a world.” It’s why he says his movie is as much “anthropological” as anything.
Prepping the movie, he says, “I looked at a number of small town American films. One of them in particular is an excellent film and it has professional actors but also people cast from that small town. But there’s a great chasm between the acting styles of the two. It’s like the faces of the real people lend what they’re supposed to lend which is authenticity, verisimilitude and all that but they’re not acting properly, even as versions of themselves.
“So I knew we had to spend time getting local people who could act as vividly as possible as versions as themselves but also to have the professional actors act flatter. They both had to meet in between. I like when professional actors act more flatly like people do in real life. People don’t gesticulate, go into histrionics in real life, not Midwesterners anyway.”
Truth is always the litmus test for Payne.
“When I’m in a casting session it’s no different from how I am on the set, which is the moment they start acting I pretend in my mind that we’re not making a movie, that I’m just there invisible watching something. Do I believe it? That’s the trick. Do I buy it? Do I think these are real people?”
Payne’s likely to return to Nebraska again to make films. It’s only natural.
“Other directors continue to make films in the cities where they grew up. Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino shoot in L.A. Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese and so many others in New York. Kurosawa would never leave Tokyo. Pedro Almodovar hasn’t made a movie outside of Spain. Fellini never made a movie outside of Italy. They were courted and invited a lot. ‘No, no, this is where I feel comfortable, where I feel like I know the people and where I can get the details right.’”
It’s the same reasoning Payne uses for making movies here. Then there’s the fact that by tackling subjects so close to home he can show a segment of America too often missing from today’s cinema.
“I think in general we Americans need to see Americans in our films but we kind of don’t, we see cartoons largely. As Americans we make cartoons easily digestible for the rest of the world but we’re not showing ourselves to ourselves. I like when art is a mirror somehow to represent or reflect or distort or refract, just to see ourselves like our film in the ‘70s, showing common people doing every day things....”
He says a recurring comment he hears about Nebraska is that “we haven’t seen these Americans in a long time. It’s as though they’re forgotten, we never see them in the cinema. I thought that was interesting that people really feel they’re seeing Americans they’ve never seen before. Of course, I really appreciate that.”
As one of only a handful of Neb. feature filmmakers who’s cultivated the state on screen, he says, “I think I’m lucky I’m from Neb. and that I have a virgin territory to show in movies. Maybe the fact I’ve seen so many movies informs the fact that I can know even unconsciously what would be new. I don’t want to make derivative films, I want to do something new.”
By the same token, Payne, who reveres classic cinema, says, “People have said of Nebraska, ‘This is a film like they used to make,’ and that makes me feel good because I’m trying to make films like how they used to make. I’m trying to make the films I myself would like to see, which is film from the ‘70s and before.”
In truth, Payne’s made a timeless film that plays like a loony requiem set to its own internal rhythm and logic. It unfolds slowly but surely and from the mix of somber, sweet and surreal emerges a lyrical comic-drama unlike any other. Because of this cinematic prairie poem the state will surely never be looked at the same again.
NOTE: Leo Adam Biga is the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” Read more of his work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.