Alexander Payne says he only finished postproduction last Friday on his Cannes competition entry Nebraska, which had its press screening this morning and will premiere tonight. Reviews coming in so far are largely mixed to very good. Even though Paramount won’t release it until November 22, Payne likes to take awhile in post to get everything right. There was initial concern about even making the Cannes date, so that is why until just a week before this year’s official lineup was announced did Paramount and Payne even decide to take a shot. He brought the film to Paris, showed it to Thierry Fremaux with only two days to spare, and landed tonight’s slot. Payne is becoming somewhat of a Cannes regular — although other than 2002’s About Schmidt, this is only his second film in competition. He has served on the juries of both Un Certain Regard and, last year, the main selection.

Nebraska, which will be one of Paramount’s Oscar hopes this year, played well to nice but brief applause from the press at the screening and at the press conference that followed (especially when stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte were introduced). It’s pure Payne in its humanist, gently funny style and captures that Middle America folksy style in beautiful black and white, but it is definitely what I would call a small film that will need tender loving care from the studio (the only major studio film in competition).

And I say thank God for Payne, a film geek who knows as much about the history of movies as he does about making them, for realizing widescreen B&W is becoming a lost art. And it was the first question he got today. “I wasn’t expecting that question at all”, he said, laughing. “It just seemed like the right thing to do for this film. It is just how I read it and saw it. True, I have always wanted to make a film in black and white. It’s such a beautiful form and it really had left our cinema because of commercial, not artistic reasons, but had never left high art photography, and this modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white. It was a visual style perhaps as austere as the lives of the people in the film.” He added that the film’s budget had to be adjusted downwards because there were finanacial concerns from the studio, especially in living up to their deals in selling to television which requires color. Payne talked about the influence of a couple of B&W 1970s films of Peter Bogdanovich, Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show and you can definitely see the inspiration here — particularly the latter film.

The script by Bob Nelson came to Payne nine years ago. And before finally shooting it he spent a solid year just casting and scouting locations in the heartland. He likes that the script was humorous and full of melancholy and also that it was somewhat autobiographical on the part of the writer (who was not in Cannes). It is the only one of Payne’s six features that he didn’t have a hand in writing (he has two screenplay Oscars, for The Descendants and Sideways). Dern noted it is the first movie in his own long career where he didn’t change a single word in the script.

Nebraska (Payne was born there) basically is a road trip movie about a son (Forte) driving his increasingly senile old father (Dern) from Montana to Nebraska in order to cash in a certificate from a publishing house that broken-down dad believes says he has really won $1 million. Payne actually had the script while making Sideways but didn’t want to do another road trip movie so soon, hence the long wait to get it made. But road trip genre aside, essentially it’s a touching if at times frustrating father-son story in which the child tries to help an aging parent retain a level of dignity in his final years. That’s what appealed to Payne. “My parents are in the home stretch. That was very personal to me because I feel that with my own parents, and in old age there are events and moments that can reduce dignity, and I think it’s nice when we sons and daughters try to restore some of that dignity. And I like very much that theme in the screenplay,” he said.

Dern says he has been waiting eight years from the first time he read the screenplay to get a chance to do the role, and that it is probably the first “leading” part in a movie he has had in nearly a quarter of a century — although the thrust of the story really leans to Forte and his efforts to deal with an alcoholic, fading father. For Paramount’s awards campaign it could either push the 75-year-old (or 76 — he wasn’t sure which)  Dern in lead or support, the latter being a spot where he could have a better shot since veterans often are rewarded there (witness Christopher Plummer last year). Good as he is, the role itself doesn’t have quite the same scope as Robert Redford’s (also 76) in All Is Lost, which premiered last night out of competition. As Dern’s wife, June Squibb also is superb and actually could have a shot in Supporting if the Oscar Gods are smiling. What the Cannes jury will make of the admittedly modest, character-driven film is anyone’s guess. Payne went home empty-handed for About Schmidt.

Dern was the life of the press conference with stories about working with legends like Hitchcock, Kazan and others in the same cinematic pantheon he says he now places Payne. Clearly he is stoked to have this career opportunity. Ironically, daughter Laura Dern, also in town for the premiere, starred in Payne’s first directorial effort Citizen Ruth in 1996. “I’ve done a lot of movies but I haven’t done, really until today as far as I’m concerned, a film…This man goes down where you are, picks you up in his arms, brings you back on the edge and says ‘let’s make magic’… The exciting thing about going to work for Alexander Payne, every day you’re excited, and why? Because he might do something that’s never been done,” he said.

Like make a major studio movie in 2013 with no big stars or special effects and then shoot it in black and white? Magic, indeed.