Anna Lisa Raya is deputy editor of AwardsLine.
Much 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.
AwardsLine: How do you characterize 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.
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.
AwardsLine: 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.
AwardsLine: Were there any 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.