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OSCARS Q&A: Alexander Payne Returns Home For 'Nebraska'

Anna Lisa Raya is deputy editor of AwardsLine.

AwardsLine.LogoBWMuch has been written about the decades-long journey Nebraska took to the big screen. For director Alexander Payne—who spent a year of that time just scouting locations in his home state—the gap allowed him to distance himself from his other road-trip movie, Sideways, and get Paramount behind his desire to shoot in black-and-white (having 2011’s well-received, George Clooney-starrer The Descendants under his belt surely helped). The film, which stars veteran actor Bruce Dern, has been warming audiences since its early bow at the Cannes Film Festival last May and captures that tragi-comic vibe that runs through Payne’s work.

Related: OSCARS: A Crowded Field Vying For Directing & Writing Noms

AwardsLine: How do you characterizealexander payne the long gap between when you were attached to make Nebraska and when the film finally went into production?
Alexander Payne: The reason it took a long time is that I didn’t want to follow up one road-trip film with another. In hindsight, the biggest advantage is in how Bruce Dern looks. He wouldn’t have looked as great 10 years ago. You see different actors in movies and think, “Thank God they got that actor at exactly the right moment.” Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon (1973). Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1972). I feel that way about Bruce Dern in Nebraska.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Bruce Dern Talks ‘Nebraska’

AwardsLine: Nebraska is the first film on which you don’t share writing credit. What appealed to you about Bob Nelson’s script?
Payne: It’s a comedy with moments of gravity. I liked that. I liked the austerity of the script—it was under a hundred pages. Increasingly, I’m attracted to short screenplays. Nobody really wants a film to be over two hours, or at least I don’t. So I liked this short screenplay that could make an interesting movie and that allowed me to shoot back in Nebraska.

nebraskaAwardsLine: Your films tend to have these subtle moments that are very powerful. Paul Giamatti’s response in 2004’s Sideways when his character’s ex-wife tells him she’s pregnant. The desperation of George Clooney’s character running in The Descendants. Bruce Dern’s Woody driving by his old flame in Nebraska. How hard are those moments to capture?
Payne: The scene in Nebraska with that lingering shot on (Angela McEwan’s) face—I don’t recall if I actually even wrote it out for the screenplay—but I knew I wanted to have that as a surprising emotional punch at the end. And then I gave both actors the same direction. I said to (McEwan), “Even though you happily married someone else, you never forgot Woody, and this is the last time you’ll ever set eyes on him.” In Sideways, it’s supposed to be a real gut punch when the ex-wife says she’s pregnant, and that’s exactly how (Giamatti) played it. In later takes, I encouraged him to smile, to cover what he’s really feeling. (With Clooney) there’s only one closeup on his face when he runs. It was a sort of anguished, comic sequence—just silent comedy. I came up with the idea a few weeks before shooting. I walked around the neighborhood and found that hairpin turn that he would run around.

AwardsLine: Bruce Dern and June Squibb both talked about how wonderfully hands-off you are as a director. Where does that confidence and trust come from?
Payne: I spend a long time casting, but once I’ve cast (a film) there’s a reason why I selected those people. So I’m hands-on in selecting the cast, hands-off to see what they do with their characters, and hands-on again to offer suggestions.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: June Squibb On The Road To ‘Nebraska’

AwardsLine: Were there anyNEBRASKA scenes in Nebraska that were particularly hard to shoot?
Payne: It’s all hard when you have such a small shoot. I’m usually a 50-day kind of guy. But I only had 35 days to shoot this one because the black and white gave me a reduced budget. The whole movie was hard in that way, in trying to capture something photographically beautiful by shooting at the right times of day, making sure the scenes were lit as beautifully as could be. And because that allowed for very few cuts, the actors really needed to be up to speed for every shot.

AwardsLine: How do you balance the pride in what you did with Nebraska with the chaos of awards season?
Payne: The reason you’re asking this question is that adult movies with any artistic credit are released in the last quarter of the year and expected to gird for battle for Globes and Oscars. So the films aren’t being seen just for themselves, but rather in a competitive context. I resent that. What that does is blur the line between a good old-fashioned release for the film and what is seen as campaigning for an award, which for me it is not. I’m happy to do promotional stuff on the film, in large part due to gratitude and politeness to the studio that financed it. And if it helps put more butts in seats, I’m happy to do so. However, when I’m introduced as a two-time Oscar winner, I recognize that those things are valued by others. I’m happy that a film of mine has found an audience and some acclaim because that keeps me in business. A filmmaker’s greatest concern is the ability to make future films, so all of those things help keep me in business.

    1. Referencing Paper Moon and Cabaret makes me think he likes his movie a lot more than I did. I found it boring and trite and utterly inconsequential. If it had anything to say about memory or regret or family or aging or marriage or poverty or middle America, I missed it. There’s an old lady swearing and lifting her skirt and that’s always funny (no it’s not). I think the director let his actors AND the characters down with this thin, thin gruel and then padded the crap out of it with pretty shots of grain silos.

      1. Boo! One thing the movie was about… a son learning that his father wasn’t just the one-dimensional character he assumed he was. He had love and heartbreak and pain and regret and kindness and mistakes throughout his life that made him just like his son… a human being.

        Take a breath and try watching a film with an open mind, instead of all that pent-up anger at whatever’s made you so hateful in life.

        1. Dern’s character isn’t played for senile, just ornery and occasionally drunk, but somehow he lived his long life without ever having heard of sweepstakes marketing scams? These are not a 21st century invention and Dern is left trying to figure out if his character even believes he’s a winner or not.

          If you’ve got elderly people in your life or know anyone in middle America struggling to make ends meet, losing their hold on what their parents took for granted or seeking solace in a bottle, this movie will strike you as false and utterly pat (and not just because it thinks it’s a comedy). There’s nothing more substantial developed between father and son than pity and Stacy Keach’s villain lacks only a twirling mustache to show us how awful he is (his character is a total re-tread of Beau Bridges’ in The Descendants). I never loved About Schmidt but it’s a richly-realized masterpiece by comparison. Sideways and Election are flawless. This is a facile movie any way you slice it.

          But thanks a bunch for the psychological workup.

  1. Nice shout-out to Tatum O’Neal. She was fantastic in “Paper Moon”. I’m the same generation as Payne and there are certain performances that still stand out from the 1970’s and Tatum’s is one of them.

    1. Really? I can’t tempt you to Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity, High Noon, Casablanca, Philadelphia Story, Manhattan, The Third Man, It’s A Wonderful Life, City Lights, The Maltese Falcon to name but 10? If that’s really true then you are really missing out.

    2. Huh? Are you serious? Some of the great movies of all times are in black and white. Photographers will tell you that they typically prefer black and white images to color. I’ve seen Nebraska twice already and I can’t imagine it in color. I’ so glad that Payne fought for the right to maintain his vision. He’s certainly earned it. Great film.

    3. The old black and whites are great in black in white.

      It doesn’t work for this film because it is set in modern time.

      Why not give us the beautiful, color, sweeping landscapes of Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming?

      Only part I couldn’t figure out…why B&W for a modern film set in big sky country?

  2. Dear Alexander:
    Please go back to working with Jim Taylor. No I am not him or his agent. I just think your films together is what made your work distinctive. I love Nat Foxon and Jim Rash (Loved The Way Way Back) but even The Decedents was not on the same level as Election, about Schmidt, Sideways or even Citizen Ruth.

  3. A great movie. A unique take on America today. Beautiful performances, magnificent cinematography and the black and white choice was critical. My favorite movie of the past several years.

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