Nebraska’s favorite film son has not shot a single frame here since About Schmidt in 2002.
Alexander Payne’s decision to make Nebraska in his home state brought into sharp relief some realities with large implications for his own work and prospects for more studio films getting made here.
With Nebraska, whose principal photography went from October 15 through November, he renewed a tradition of shooting here, and surrounding himself with crew with whom he has a long history. Some key locals are part of his creative team, too, including one metro resident he calls “my secret weapon.”
Aesthetically and technically speaking, Payne also stretched himself by lensing for the first time in black and white, wide screen and digital. He says abandoning celluloid marks a concession to the new digital norm and to the fact today’s black-and-white film stock options are limited.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael says digital “allows us to work more with natural light and not have to carry a larger equipment package. We did specific black and white tests to choose the texture and quality in terms of contrast and film grain level we want for the picture. So we went into it knowing exactly where we want to be.”
Papamichael adds, “Digital means needing less light, so we can do tighter interiors, which is important on this show because we’re entirely a location picture. We don’t have anything built. A lot of these interior spaces are very small and whatever space we can save in terms of lighting and camera equipment is helpful. Rather than having traditional bigger car rigs and following cars with camera cars we’re able to just get in the car hand-held. Also, these newer cameras allow us to do good car work without lighting. It just helps the whole natural feel we’re going for.”
At the end of the day, says Payne, digital “doesn’t matter to me because my process stays exactly the same.” His process is all about arriving at the truth. Capturing the windswept plains and fall after-harvest season figured prominently this time. Papamichael and Payne sought ways to juxtapose characters with the prairie, the open road and small town life. In a story of taciturn people rooted to the land and whose conversations consist of terse exchanges, context and subtext are everything. The filmmakers extracted all the metaphor and atmosphere possible from actual locations, geography and weather.
Combine technology and a local cast and crew with world-class talent and you have the seed for a local film industry. Payne doesn’t belabor the point but he received pressure from various quarters to shoot the picture elsewhere. The suits pressed going to states with serious film tax credits. Many locales could approximate Nebraska while saving producers money.
He finds himself in the awkward position of having lobbied long and hard to try and convince the governor and state legislators to support film incentives only to see his entreaties largely ignored. As much as he and his projects are embraced, his moviemaking forays in the state seem taken for granted. He only ended up shooting here because he had the motivation and clout to do so.
If not for Nebraska there would have been no feature film activity of any significance here during 2012. Minus his Citizen Ruth, Election and Schmidt, the state has precious little feature film activity of any size to show. Refusing to cheat the script’s Nebraska settings, Payne brought Indiewood feature filmmaking of scale back home for the first time in a decade. Basing his production in Norfolk provided a boost to the northeast part of the state.
Norfolk director of economic development Courtney Klein-Faust says the total impact the project had on the local economy has yet to be tabulated, but that just in lodging alone the production spent more than a half-million dollars accommodating its 100 cast and crew members. She says the film bought local goods and services whenever possible. She feels the experience will serve as “a case study” for elected officials to assess the trickle down effect of mid-major features and will be used by supporters of tax credits to push for more film industry friendly measures.
Like many filmmakers who develop a track record of success, Payne’s cultivated around him a stock company of crew he works with from project to project, drawing on local talent.
On Nebraska he collaborated for the third consecutive time with Papamichael, the director of photography for The Descendants and Sideways. Their relationship entered a new dimension as they devised a black- and- white and widescreen visual palette to accentuate Nebraska’s stark characters and settings. That meant fixing on the right tools to capture that look.
“We did a bunch of testing and dialed in a look we’d like for our black and white because there are many different ways to go about black and white,” says Papamichael. Some of the expressive light and shadow images extracted by Papamichael and Payne recall memorable black and white treatments from cinema past, including Shadow of a Doubt, Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil and It’s a Wonderful Life.
“It’s not really a film noir look, it’s definitely a high con(trast) with natural lighting” Papamichael says. “We were very diligent in selecting our lens package, which is Panavision C Series anamorphic. That’s from the ’70s, so it has a little bit of a less defined, less sharp quality and that helps the look. We’re adding quite a bit of actual film grain to it, which will feel like you’re watching a film projection. We’re even talking about possibly adding some projector flicker imposed. So we’re really going for a film look.
“And through a series of tests we’ve been able to achieve that.”
A week into filming, Papamichael was pleased by what he and Payne cultivated.
“There’s an overall excitement the whole crew has. Everybody feels we’re doing something very special and unique and the black and white has a lot to do with it. After you work with it for awhile it becomes the way you see things. In a way we’re learning the power of black and white as we go. We’re really coming to appreciate and love the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes and, of course, the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story – just scaling the human drama and comedy.
“The black and white is becoming a very powerful character in this film just in terms of setting the mood for this.”
Grizzled Hollywood veteran Bruce Dern as the gone-to-seed protagonist Woody is a walking emblem of the forlorn but enduring fields and played out towns that form the story’s backdrop. His tangle of white hair resembles shocks of frosted wheat. His drab workingman clothes hang on him as if he’s a scarecrow. His gait is halting and he lists to one side. His Woody is as worn and weathered as the abandoned farmhouse of the character’s youth. But just like the artifacts of Woody’s past, this physical-emotional derelict holds on from sheer cussedness.
Papamichael says part of the fun became “discovering Bruce Dern’s great visual qualities – his face, the textures and everything that are is emphasized through the black and white.”
The film’s full of Nebraskesque places and faces. There’s that farmhouse a few minutes outside Plainview. There’s the town of Plainview itself standing in for the fictional Hawthorne. There’s an American Legion hall, some bars, farm implement dealerships and mottled fields full of lowing cows. There are earnest farmers, shopkeepers, housewives and barmaids, plain as the day is long.
“Alexander is very diligent about finding the exact right spot for everything,” says Papamichael.
The original screenplay is by Bob Nelson, whose parents grew up in the very northeast environs of the state the film’s set in. He’s also impressed by how rigorous Payne is in location scouting.
“I think he’s done a great job of finding a combination of things around Norfolk,” he says. “I’ve seen the location photos and it’s pretty stunning to see it in black and white. You know it has that The Last Picture Show quality to it. It is funny to see these things that were in your mind, like the abandoned farmhouse, come to life. I don’t know how they found it, it must have been a chore, but they came up with a good one. Almost everything I saw was spot-on perfect.”
The locations are pregnant with memories and incidents, thus Payne and Papamichael chose ones most reflecting the characters and situations. And they cast actors and nonactors alike who most represent these places and lifestyles.
“For him it’s not all about trying to capture something truthful and comedically grim about the American landscape but also something archetypal,” says producer Albert Berger.
Whenever Payne works with Papamichael it means inheriting the camera and lighting crew the celebrated DP brings with him, including chief lighting technician Rafael Sanchez and key grip Ray Garcia. Boom operator Jonathan Fuh is a regular on Payne sets as well as costume designer Wendy Chuck.
Then there’s veteran Payne collaborator Jose Antonio Garcia, the sound mixer on the writer-director’s last three films. George Parra goes back as far as Election in capacities ranging from assistant director to co-producer to production manager. He executive produced Nebraska.
Production designer Jane Ann Stewart had been on every Payne show since Citizen Ruth, but J. Dennis Washington took over that job on Nebraska. Interestingly, a Hollywood art director who lives in Nebraska, Sandy Veneziano, joined the crew to mark her first Payne production.
Omaha resident Jamie Vesay, a key assistant location manager, crewed along with other locals, including set medic Brian O’Leary.
Screenwriter Nelson is a Nebraskan by proxy. His folks hailed from Hartington and growing up in the Pacific Northwest he visited relatives back here, several of whom were models for his characters. Woody is closely patterned after his father.
Payne conferred with Nelson as he tweaked the writer’s work.
“Yeah, every time I’d do a pass on the script I’d send it to him and see what he thought, and he seemed to like it,” Payne says. “Sometimes there were certain moments or a certain scene I’d want a little more information about. Like one scene I really like in the script is when the family visits the house where Woody grew up and it’s now an abandoned farmhouse. And there Woody delivers a speech about having found the hail adjuster’s knife in the field, and it’s really the only time Woody speaks in the film, and I just remember asking Bob where that came from.”
Nelson says that American Gothic scene when Woody tells his son David (WIll Forte) “a story about how the hail adjustor tried to screw them out of their insurance is actually a true story based on visiting an uncle near Wausa on his farm. That’s almost verbatim.”
Payne says Nelson also helped inform some creative decisions. “He sent me some old photographs of his actual family from Hartington to serve as something of a reference for casting and costuming.”
The colleague Payne refers to as “my secret weapon,” casting director John Jackson of Council Bluffs, is undoubtedly the most influential local in the filmmaker’s close circle of collaborators.
“We just have really similar tastes and in honing our working method since 1995 we just have developed a very similar aesthetic of what we want to see in a film, the type of reality we want,” Payne says of Jackson. “And also I think the two of us have developed a pretty good eye for spotting acting talent in nonactors – talent they may not even know they have – and by talent I just mean the ability to be in front of a camera playing some version of themselves and saying dialogue believably and without getting freaked out.”
“People can be cinematic just by being themselves and being appropriately placed where they need to be, people can be brilliant by just doing what they do, listening or talking or moving,” says Jackson, who along with Payne is excited about several of their nonactor discoveries on Nebraska.
“Glendora Stitt, the woman that plays Aunt Betty, what a find. Dennis McCoIg, who plays Uncle Cecil, is like Gary Cooper. Scott Goodman, the barista who served me at the Scooters drive-thru in Norfolk was hilarious without trying and I cast him in a tiny role. John “Jack” Reynolds, who plays Bernie Bowen, an old friend of Woody’s, is right out of a Preston Sturges and Frank Capra movie. He’s the face of the rolling plains and hilariously funny.”
Jackson says he thinks of filling out the people who inhabit any movie, such as Woody’s clan, “in terms of I’ve got to build the family, and then, ‘Who are the next door neighbors? who are his friends? what do they do for a living?’ I always have a back story for them. It’s not like I sit down and make it up, the script tells me what it is by the things they say.”
“Obviously it’s worked well,” says Payne. “Together we cast Chris Klein, Nick D’Agosto going as far back as Election. In the traditional American filmmaking model for casting you have one casting director, typically out of New York or L.A. or Chicago with whom you cast the lead parts, maybe the top five or 10 or 15 speaking parts. And then if you’re shooting on location you have a second casting person, a local casting person. That’s what John Jackson was for me on the first three films. And then you have a third person who’s in charge of extras. And I somehow thought that one person should be in charge of all of the flesh.
There should be one vision guiding all of it. You can’t get anyone in L.A. or New York to do that, so the person I want to do that is John Jackson.”
Jackson says his guide in casting is looking at “what does the script say,” and then conferring with Payne. “We talk a lot about the characters in relationship to the text. I frequently find myself asking him questions like, ‘At this point in the movie what do you want the audience to feel? what do you want them to think? what do you want them to say as they walk out of the theater?’ One of the things I learned from him is to look at a moment in the story and to ask questions like, ‘Who’s funnier doing this? who’s more believable doing that? who breaks my heart more?’
“I remember when we were doing Schmidt and it was between this woman in New York, June Squibb, and a woman in L.A. the studio was pushing and I said to him, ‘Well, it has to be her,’ meaning June Squibb, and he said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because in that moment when she surprises him with the motor home and she’s seated at the table and says, Isn’t it going to be great? you know he’s hating every minute of it. Somebody needs to break my heart, and June Squibb breaks my heart. At that moment I feel for her. I feel pain for him, but I really feel for her, so when she dies I’m going to hurt, whereas this other woman I don’t feel anything.’”
Squibb plays Woody’s wife Kate in Nebraska.
“Those are the kinds of conversations we have,” Jackson says of he and Payne. “We never talk about, as other producers do, ‘Well, you know, this person’s presence in the film would be great because they’re so huge in terms of DVD sales.’ I never have those conversations with him. I’ve tried in the past and he’ll just look at me like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to know.’ So it’s cleansed me.”
Jackson says he’s learned not to try and anticipate what Payne wants. “He constantly surprises me, he constantly challenges me. I wouldn’t want it any other way. What he’s looking for, I don’t know, I don’t know that he even knows, but I know one thing – when it’s there he recognizes it. That’s alchemy.”
No two projects are alike, Jackson says. “Every single one of these films is a completely different organic living thing and the challenge is to honor that and to help that grow and evolve and become whatever it’s going to become and Alexander is the guide to all of that.”
Payne and longtime editor Kevin Tent will be cutting Nebraska through the spring and the film will likely start playing festivals in late summer-early fall in advance of a end of 2013 general release.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.