EXCLUSIVE: Hot off completing production on the Quentin Tarantino-directed The Hateful Eight, Bruce Dern now is focusing on a new passion: producing movies written by women that present a gender viewpoint that doesn’t get near as many storytelling opportunities as men take for granted. Dern, who formed the production shingle Publicly Private Productions with partner Wendy Guerrero, has acquired Yesterday’s Weirdness, a script by Amy Nicole about a college girl weighted down by her love for a pro-caliber skateboarder with a drug problem. This becomes the second script they’ve optioned following Cindy Kitagawa’s Coast, which focuses on a 15-year-old girl who, along with her friends, are hellbent on leaving their small hometown before it’s no longer an option and a mundane life is the only alternative.
Why has the two-time Oscar nominee — who in The Hateful Eight plays a hateful racist Confederate general named Sanford Smithers — taken up this late-life crusade? “I’m no big shot and no movie star, and I’m not doing it to give anything back,” Dern told Deadline. “I’m doing it because I love underdog stories and we’ve had seven generations of women in this country who were underdogs and didn’t know it, and not enough of their stories have been told. I’m not looking for women’s libbers, I’m looking for girls who’ve found the courage. And both Amy and Cindy went through an era and had the courage and guts to go back there themselves and write what they felt and saw and did.”
Yesterday’s Weirdness takes its title from the Hunter S. Thompson line that yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why,and the film is set right after the 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain, a hero to both main characters. He’s a talented skateboarder hamstrung by a drug habit, and she is the one who has to decide whether they are on the cusp of an important cultural moment or if her love for him and her forgiveness of his shortcomings will bring both of them down. In Coast, it’s the story of girls who are determined to leave town after high school before, Dern said, “they are trapped forever and there is no way out.”
There are a few things about chatting with Dern. First, it’s going to take an hour, and second, he’s got an encyclopedic memory of his roles and everything he’s seen on a movie screen — and he’s about as full of homespun wisdom as the judge he played in the climax of All The Pretty Horses. He said he feels incredibly lucky having made back-to-back movies with Tarantino and Alexander Payne (Nebraska), whom he places in the same class as Kazan, Hitchcock, Francis Coppola and Douglas Trumbull. With dozens of great performances in movie classics, he has little to prove, but continues to try finding truth in acting roles and in scripts.
“I feel that the women in my lifetime that I’ve observed, they don’t get a break, and I want to do some movies about women who haven’t had a shot but pull it off when they get it,” Dern said. He certainly has watched the limits facing actresses up close, through his daughter Laura Dern, whose career is also on an upswing after earning an Oscar nomination for her performance in Wild. Rather, he said, it’s all about honesty.
Dern is terribly excited about his experience shooting The Hateful Eight, though it could be unnerving how Tarantino remembered things from Dern’s role’s in early TV Westerns even more vividly than the actor. “In the movie, my character never moves out of this chair, and we’d be sitting in 25 degrees even when we moved to a set out here, because you had to be able to see their breath,” Dern said. “We would have these little quizzes every day, about those shows, and Quentin would constantly surprise me.”
Like one scene with Channing Tatum that ended with the young actor ad-libbing a line clearly given him by the director. “He turns to me and says, ‘Now, you’re not playing foxy old grandpas with me, are you?” I laughed and Quentin laughed. That was the exact same line I said to Lee J. Cobb in an episode of The Virginian in 1967, and this son of a bitch remembered it and put it in the movie, and I got a young actor saying it to me. There were names that would pop up, like Warren Vanders, a dead guy that Sam Jackson’s bounty hunter character had killed in the movie. I did five Big Valley episodes with Warren Vanders, and a couple of Gunsmokes. I worked with Kazan and Mr. Hitchcock and Francis, but I’ve never seen a director who gave you a chance to get better like Tarantino did. He dreams bigger than any director I’ve worked for and been around. He was well aware of who I am and what I’ve done in the business and was extremely kind to me. Together, we gave my character edges and depth neither of us had seen before we got started. It was that way with everybody there, and you never knew when someone was going to do something you’d never seen before. At 79, I’m glad every day for the chance to get better and learn and I was able to do that.”