Anna Lisa Raya is Deputy Editor of AwardsLine.
Following their success working with breakout directors on sophomore efforts—Steven Soderbergh, Todd Field and Alexander Payne among them— Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa were pleasantly surprised when Payne suggested himself to direct the Bob Nelson-penned Nebraska. Almost a decade passed before the film went into production, a fortuitous delay that positioned the black-and-white film directly after Payne’s Oscar-nominated The Descendants, giving it a much-needed bump in budget and studio support. Nebraska stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte as a father and son road-tripping through the Midwest.
AwardsLine: How has your collaborative process with Alexander Payne changed since you worked with him on Election?
ALBERT BERGER: At the time of Election, it was Alexander’s first studio movie, and I think he was very unused to that process—he’s a very personal filmmaker and working with a studio wasn’t his natural thing. At this point in time, with Sideways and About Schmidt and The Descendants all under his belt, Paramount had a level of faith in him; it was a much more relaxed situation. Nobody was telling him who to cast in this instance; nobody was interfering with anything creative about the script.
RON YERXA: All parties matured nicely, and it was a calmer, troublefree way to make a film.
AwardsLine: What were the initial budget conversations like with the studio?
BERGER: We always knew it had to be a small movie because the material was intimate. And we know the way Alexander likes to cast: He reads everybody and casts whoever is best for the part instead of (casting) people with foreign-sales value. So we knew that he was going to cast whoever he wanted, and we knew he wanted to film in black and white. We set it up at Paramount Classics, and they accepted it in black and white, but subsequently they went out of business and became Paramount Vantage. (Then Vantage) went out of business and the project got kicked up to Paramount. When we were ready to make the movie, black and white was kind of an issue. We went to get a green light on the film, and (Paramount Film Group president) Adam Goodman couldn’t have been more supportive. He said, “Cast whoever you want; make the film however you want. You have our full support and a substantial budget to work with.” And then Alexander said, “OK, but I need to do it in black and white,” and that (budget) number got reconfigured. We went from something that was upward of $15 million down to $2 million. So it had a huge implication. As the film got closer to production, the budget steadily rose, and ultimately we ended up making the film for around $12 million or so.
AwardsLine: And that was the right amount for everyone?
BERGER: Yes, that was exactly the right number for us. We hit some snags because we found ourselves ahead of schedule, and we ended up getting into the Cannes Film Festival… We weren’t expecting to go to Cannes, so there were some added expenses, but at the end of the day, we had saved quite a bit of money on production. That money got spent on post issues, like Cannes and music.
AwardsLine: How different is the theatrical version of Nebraska from the one that was shown in Cannes?
BERGER: We tightened the film by about a minute. A lot of the music was temp-scored at Cannes, and the score got fleshed out more. There were songs that got changed as well, and then, maybe most importantly, the first act of the film got restructured a bit. So certain scenes got a bit longer, and there was a little more of a comedic emphasis in the beginning, just adjustment.
AwardsLine: So much happens with the characters in the second half of the movie after a slowish start. Did you discuss the pacing with Payne during the process?
YERXA: It was discussed as we saw different cuts. It’s great for audiences to settle into it because it takes you on its own ride at its own determined pace, which has a lot of humor and a lot of emotional scenes that are really intense. But that is another important part of the film because you’re going into an emotional landscape, and the audience needs to settle in at the same pace.
AwardsLine: Was there a silver lining to waiting almost 10 years to make the film?
BERGER: These things kind of go at their own pace and by the time we made the movie—I mean, it wasn’t our intent—the economic climate of the country felt very commensurate with the themes of the movie. And I think the casting, since we didn’t do this eight or nine years ago, allowed Bruce (Dern) to get to a certain age and allowed Will Forte to emerge.
YERXA: The cliché is that films have become more like extravaganzas, so we’re pleased with the fact that here’s a film that couldn’t be more against that grain but still connects with an audience. So it’s almost like a counterpoint than it ever would have been 10 years ago.
BERGER: And for it to be a studio film is all the better because it’s just reassuring for us to know that there’s still a home for these kinds of (films) at the studios.