Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska …
I’ve been writing about Nebraska a lot recently, and it’s got nothing to do with the state’s football team.
Rather, it’s because of the revelatory new film by Omahan Alexander Payne called “Nebraska.”
My brother was kind enough to buy me a ticket to an Omaha event this past weekend featuring Payne, Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb. It was an insightful, funny evening that I won’t soon forget.
I decided to write up the event in a story for the Press & Dakotan.
I’ll have more “Nebraska” content on the blog in the coming days. I did an interview with screenwriter Bob Nelson earlier this week.
OMAHA, Neb. — Veteran actor Bruce Dern has worked with some of the cinema’s most revered directors — Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan and Francis Ford Coppola among them — but he believes the best director he has acted under is Omaha’s Alexander Payne.
“I would say, on the basis of my entire career, Alexander Payne is probably the best director I’ve ever worked with,” Dern told an audience at Omaha’s Holland Performing Arts Center Sunday. “The difference is, he has a wonderfully warm approachability. He’s your partner. He’s right where you are. He’s watching the scenes happen for the first time. He knows the script is good. He knows his crew is good. He hires us because he knows we’re (the people to play) the parts. You do it until he believes it, and I will trust his belief more than any other director I’ve ever worked with.”
With the recent release of Payne’s new film, “Nebraska,” Dern joined the director, as well as stars Will Forte and June Squibb, for “Feature V.” The annual event is a fundraiser for Omaha’s Film Streams, a nonprofit cinema that focuses on independent and foreign films. This year, it raised more than $300,000 for the organization.
The 90-minute event was attended by an audience of more than 1,600 people that took every opportunity to express its affection for Payne, “Nebraska” and its stars.
“Nebraska” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where Dern earned the best actor award. It received a limited release in select U.S. cities, including Omaha, earlier this month and has received mostly positive reviews — including speculation that it could be nominated for several Academy Awards.
The film was written by Bob Nelson, who was born in Yankton shortly before being moved to Washington with his parents. “Nebraska” is the first movie Payne has directed that he hasn’t also had a hand in writing.
In the film, a father (Woody, played by Dern) and his estranged son (David, played by Forte) travel together from Montana to Nebraska after Woody becomes convinced he has won a $1 million sweepstakes prize. The black-and-white film explores family ties, jealousy and rural America with a unique mixture of drama and comedy that has come to define Payne’s films.
Kurt Andersen, a Nebraska native who is an author and hosts “Studio 360” on public radio, moderated “Feature V.”
“The thing that is often said, in a joking way, about movies or plays is that, ‘You’ll laugh, you’ll cry,’” Andersen told Payne. “I don’t know anyone making films today of whom that is truer than you. I literally cried, and I literally laughed while watching ‘Nebraska.’ Can you imagine doing one or the other?”
Payne said he believes that he essentially makes comedies. “Nebraska” is his sixth film and comes on the heels of the 2011 film, “The Descendants,” which starred George Clooney.
“Even in ‘The Descendants,’ which had a lot of dreariness and ‘boo hoo’ in it … I tried to do it with a light touch,” Payne stated. “It has all that drama in it, but the question I got asked the most was, ‘How did you get George Clooney to run so funny?’”
While scouting locations for “Nebraska,” Payne said he was looking for small towns that had a plainness to them. He ended up shooting in Plainview, Neb., and other communities in the Norfolk, Neb., area.
“In northeastern Nebraska, (the towns) are just a little more austere. The screenplay suggested a certain deadpan austerity,” Payne stated, while also addressing the decision to shoot in the fall and winter months. “I felt this story could be most painful and most beautiful, quite frankly, with leafless trees. In the movie, you’ll see the skeletons of trees. We made a big point of really showing trees; overcast skies; beautiful, fluffy clouds; and stubbly corn fields.”
Payne said that he was convinced from the beginning that “Nebraska” needed to be a black-and-white film. However, the decision meant he had to settle for a smaller budget to make it. The film was produced for $13.5 million, but he could have gotten approximately $16.5 million had it been made in color.
“I didn’t know just how cheap it was going to have to be,” Payne said. “At that budget range, a million dollars really makes a big difference.”
Because of studio commitments, he said a color version was made with an early 1970s look to it.
While Payne said it is beautiful, “it’s not appropriate for this film. I saw it once, quickly, in fast forward.”
The director released his first feature film, “Citizen Ruth,” in 1996. After his fourth film, “Sideways,” it took seven years before Payne made “The Descendants.”
He said he would make a film a year if he could.
“What slows me down is screenplays. It’s all about the screenplay,” Payne stated. “I’m not like Woody Allen or other guys who, with great discipline, sit down every day and crank them out and have a plethora of ideas. I’m just slower than that. I’m pretty fast once I get directing and editing. I’ve written for myself out of desperation.”
While television is experiencing a golden age of innovation and storytelling, Payne said good screenplays are harder to find.
“Movies are far more like cartoons,” he stated.
Now in his 50s, Payne said he hopes he can maintain the energy and good health needed to direct a film.
“I feel like I’m just getting started, just sharpening my pencil,” he stated. “These first six films are fine, but I’d like to think they’re minor works compared to the stuff coming up.”
After being welcomed out on stage, Forte, a “Saturday Night Live” veteran, was asked if he learned anything about Nebraska while shooting the film in the state.
“I learned that you don’t have late-night food options,” he joked to a round of applause.
“I had not spent a lot of time in the heartland,” Forte added on a more serious note. “It was amazing. They were so welcoming. I felt right at home.”
Acting in a dramatic role, he said he appreciated both the good and bad aspects of his character, David.
“It’s closer to real life than anything I’ve ever done,” Forte stated.
Growing up in Chicago, Dern said his family didn’t allow him to travel west for reasons he still doesn’t understand — even though his grandfather grew up in Hooper, Neb., and Fremont, Neb., before the family moved to Utah.
Dern said he appreciates the values of the Great Plains.
“The principles of this part of the country start right close to the Iowa-Illinois border,” he stated. “There is a sense of fairness. There is a sense of pride. There is a sense of honesty that you don’t find among the corridors of Lake Michigan or back east, whether it’s Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts or along the coast.”
Although many have suggested that Squibb steals scenes as Woody’s brash and sometimes foul-mouthed wife, Dern joked that an actor has to get up pretty early in the morning to steal a scene from him. Rather, he suggested that Squibb did what was required of her for the role.
Despite being hard on Woody, Squibb said she never doubted that her character loved her husband.
“I knew this woman — why she was doing what she was doing,” Squibb said. “When I saw the film, I thought ‘My God, that’s my mother.’ She had two sisters that were crazy, too. It’s sort of in my genes.”
If you’re in need of a laugh, check out this clip from the film. Don’t worry, it doesn’t contain any real spoilers.