'Nebraska' Director Seeks to Acquaint Hollywood With America's Heartland

Oscar-nominated director Alexander Payne talks, with Midwestern hospitality, about filming his home state in black and white.

What one remembers from Alexander Payne’s lovely “Nebraska,” which opens in Israeli theaters Thursday, are faces and sky. The faces are those of the characters, some of them played by nonprofessional actors from the American Midwest, where most of the movie is set. The sky covers, and sometimes weighs upon, the flat landscape. Occasionally, it seems to be trying to take over the scene and push the characters out of the frame. The fact that “Nebraska” was filmed in black and white and Cinemascope wide-screen format only enhances this sense.

Bruce Dern was awarded the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his lead role in the film, which has six Academy Awards nominations in the most prestigious categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson), Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael), Best Actor (Dern) and Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb).

My interview of Payne, 52, in Cannes, France, two days after the movie’s world premiere there in August, was one of the most pleasant meetings I have had with a director. In addition to being gracious and articulate and answering all my questions as though a stream of reporters had not asked them already, Payne projected a comforting sense of vulnerability. At one point, he even expressed his fears about the film’s chances of success and pushed for my opinion on whether a film of this kind, shot in black and white and with an almost minimalist plot, could succeed in the current entertainment climate.

“I always knew that one of the films I directed would be in black and white,” Payne said, adding that most of the movies he watched for pleasure were black and white, by directors such as Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. The movie he has watched most, by his recollection, is Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai.” He says he also likes black and white films from the 1960s, like John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate” and Arthur Penn’s “Mickey One.”

“I don’t think the fact that ‘Manhattan’ or ‘Raging Bull’ were filmed in black and white bothered anybody,” he said.

Payne says black-and-white filmmaking was pushed out of the film industry for commercial reasons, and he refuses to believe audiences are deterred from watching such pictures. He was adamant that “Nebraska” not be filmed in color.

The American dream writ small

“The black-and-white film gave me the feeling that even though the movie is set in the present, it is happening outside time in some way; that the settings and the characters represent an America that is not part of history,” I said. “Do you agree with this argument?”

After a contemplative pause, Payne defends the Midwest’s existence. “[People from the Midwest] belong to the present time just as much as the people who live in New York or Los Angeles, but they’re repressed from our consciousness,” he said.

Payne was working on the film when the global financial crisis struck in 2007. But he says that to a certain extent, its influence on the people in the film is less than upon those who live in the large cities, since, “their expectations of the American dream are more modest.”

I told Payne, “There were moments in the film that reminded me of movies by John Ford, which were filmed in black and white and sometimes described that America.”

“I take that as a big compliment,” he replied.

Payne was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1961, the grandson of Greek immigrants. He studied history and Spanish at Stanford University and went on to study film at UCLA. “Nebraska” is his sixth full-length feature film. In 1996 he directed his first film, “Citizen Ruth,” in which Laura Dern (Bruce Dern’s daughter) plays a pregnant drug addict who unwillingly becomes the subject of a public struggle when a judge orders her to have an abortion. The film’s plot took place in Nebraska, as did the plot of his second film, “Election” (1999), a sharp satire about a high-school teacher (Matthew Broderick) whose life is ruined by a pupil (Reese Witherspoon) whose ambition borders on madness. “Election” won Payne sweeping recognition; he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay).

In 2002, Payne directed “About Schmidt,” which also takes place in Nebraska. It describes the journey of a retired man (Jack Nicholson) whose wife has recently died (she is played by Joan Squibb, who also plays the wife of the leading character in “Nebraska”) to the wedding of his estranged daughter (Hope Davis). In 2004, Payne moved to California’s wine-producing region to make his most successful film, “Sideways,” a comedy-drama. It chronicles the journey of two friends (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Heyden Church) who want to enjoy a last hurrah before one of them gets married. “Sideways” won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and was nominated in four other categories, including Best Picture and Best Director. Payne made his next film, “The Descendants” (2011), in Hawaii. It tells the story of a local businessman (George Clooney) whose wife was in a coma, and his attempts to rebuild his relationships with his two daughters. It, too, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and won an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay. Now, Payne is back in Nebraska.

Hitting the jackpot

Payne’s new film centers on an elderly man, Woody Grant, a former car mechanic, who suffers from advanced dementia. He receives a notice in the mail telling him that he has won a million dollars and sets out from his home town of Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his prize. His wife and two sons fail to dissuade him, and when it turns out that he really intends to go and even begins walking, one of his sons, David (Will Forte), decides to drive him.

Although this is the first time that Payne has directed a film whose screenplay he did not write, he says that when two of the producers of “Election” showed him Bob Nelson’s screenplay, he immediately knew he wanted to direct it. “Even if Bob hadn’t intended the screenplay for me at first, when I read it, I felt right away that it had been written for me,” he says. Of the six films he has made, “Nebraska” is his third road movie. He insists this a is coincidence; the road movie is not his favorite genre.

“I do like to show the landscapes of America, the America that is mostly never seen on the American movie screen, and the structure of a road movie gives me an opportunity to do that,” he said.

Bruce Dern, who is 77 years old, was one of the first actors to represent the revolution in American film that took place after the old-time Hollywood industry collapsed. One of his first film appearances was a small role in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Marnie” (1964). He never became a star on the level of Robert De Niro or Jack Nicholson, but appeared in films such as “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” by Sidney Pollack, “Bloody Mama” by Roger Corman and “Family Plot,” Hitchcock’s last film. His only other Academy Award nomination was for his role in Hal Ashby’s 1978 film “Coming Home.”

Dern plays the role of Grant wonderfully well; some might call it the performance of his life. When I asked Payne how Dern was chosen for the role, he said that when he was thinking of actors who could play Woody Grant, he thought mostly of actors from the past such as Henry Fonda, William Holden or Warren Oates, none of whom are alive. Bruce Dern seemed to him the right choice among all the actors of the right age who are still active and whom he admires. “And I was more right than I ever expected,” he says.

Merie W. Wallace
Merie W. Wallace
Merie W. Wallace
Merie W. Wallace