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Director Alexander Payne talks Nebraska

By Anne Brodie Dec 3, 2013, 18:33 GMT

Director Alexander Payne talks Nebraska

An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. ...more

Alexander Payne’s films aren’t big and showy. They’re small masterpieces examining our flawed state with humor, compassion and authenticity. They often take place in recognizable locations in Middle America, the place many people escape if they don’t understand it’s magic.

Payne is a proud Nebraska native who understands the lure of terrain and place, and named his latest film after the state. It concerns an ageing, senile husband and father (Bruce Dern) who sets out to claim a million dollar sweepstakes which may or may not exist.

His son (Will Forte) decides to join him on the road rather than fight he tries to fulfill his last dream. Payne got Dern back in front of the camera and cast most of the film with ordinary people from along the way in Nebraska.
Monsters and Critics spoke with Payne in Toronto.

M&C: Have you been through the stage of caring for your parents?

Payne: Yes. I am 52 and I look after them and deal with their craziness. Many of us have our own versions of this story.

M&C: You’ve made stunning use of black and white that evokes another age our parents still inhabit. Was there even a cell phone in the film? It seemed radically anti- digital.

Payne: And yet it was shot digitally. It just felt right, always wanted to make one black and white feature and I knew it would be expensive and thematically it just felt right. The screenplay suggested it to me, the deadpan humor, the austere lives suggested it from the first time I read it and I hope you as a viewer felt it worked. Color doesn’t work right.

M&C: Did you have a lot of resistance from the studios?

Payne: Hell yes. Are you crazy? No studio wants to hear a filmmaker say a film should be in black and white.

M&C: You’re not immune to this kind of interference after winning two Oscars?

Payne: I was able to make it, but on a shrink-wrap budget. Ultimately, they suspected they’d make money with my track record, but the budget was reduced $3M less than what I would have had if it was color. So it was a reduced fashion. It’s a good exercise unless you’re being emasculated. It’s not a bad exercise to be forced to shoot efficiently and elegantly.

God bless that Paramount. Of course it’s unusual for letting me come with this crazy idea of making this film with no real stars in today’s cinema. And they’re giving it a full throated release for a specialty film. I’m very grateful. All this is after we agreed on a reduced budget.

M&C: It won a prize and two nominations at Cannes. Do you think that helps?

Payne: I wouldn’t have thought it would help in North America but Paramount put it in the ads and trumpeted it around the world so it had meaning. I wasn’t sure about here but they’re using it. Bruce Dern won Best Actor award so he’s in contention for the Oscars and I am happy for him and by extension the film.

M&C: Why did the film take nine years to make?

Payne: It’s very simple. I didn’t want to follow up Sideways, one road picture, with another road picture. I wanted to get out of the fucking care, forgive my language the darn car. I just didn’t know it was going to be so long from Sideways to The Descendants, and when Descendants was done I dove into Nebraska.

M&C: Did your perspective change?

Payne: My perspective on it didn’t change but the script changed, someone contributed jokes and I did a rewrite right before shooting. Making them the film was confirmed by more experience on my part dealing with my parents and the economic malaise in the film. I wasn’t reaching for it, but I allowed it to come into the film because of the year I was shooting, and being black and white it adds a further depression era texture to the film.

M&C: Great side actors and characters

Payne: I used many non-actors, people really taken off the street or the farms as it were. There are three types of actors, highly seasoned professionals, then non-professional actors, from community theatre and the third type is non actors, people we seek to play versions of themselves. We’ve developed techniques over many years ensuring the final film is smooth, that all three actors are in the same film and people can’t tell the difference.

M&C: How did these varied levels of experience affect the atmosphere?

Payne: It’s two sides of the coin, one side is the seasoned professionals who come in from LA or New York or Chicago is making sure they are believable as middle Americans and the other side is making sure non actors are bullet proof meaning they won’t freak out and freeze and become self-conscious of being on camera with sixty technicians and me yelling at them on camera. It’s part of my aesthetic. It just takes time if they are all there.

There is talent everywhere. It’s such an honor to have Bruce Dern acting with unknowns. It’s interesting to watch. Making a film touches so many lives. It’s a neat thing making films. My own life is touched into whose lives I’m invited into for a brief period of time.

M&C: Do you feel things are more authentic mixing these people?

Payne: I want my films to be more related to real life than commercial movies, a commercial movie representation of a reality. And because I have such low budgets by American standards, I am encouraged to find local talent, and avoid flights, hotels and per diems. We will spend as much time casting an actor for one line as a lead; I’m exaggerating slightly, but yeah.

M&C: It’s interesting to see the dramatic side of comic actor Will Forte and a big opportunity for him.

Payne: I don’t really care about his career, I care about his appropriateness for this film but I can say I don’t see him as funny man Will Forte, I see him as an actor equally adept in comedy and drama. Sometimes it works with professionals that I can see more in him than he saw. He said publically that he didn’t think he had a chance but he still put himself up for it.

Some comic actors aren’t worth looking at it if they aren’t doing something funny, comic actors might be interesting but they have to play the comedy if there is a smell of comedy. And Will is neither of those. He’s beautiful, relatable and has sweetness and sincerity that comes through and I’m very happy for him.

M&C: What’s next?

Payne: A break now I try not to. Unless I’m offered something beautiful I’ll start writing with my partners in January.

M&C: I’d love to see another rural film form you.

Payne: Okay! You know I would like to make in the near future a film set in rural Nebraska in Spanish because of the huge number of Mexicans. There are small towns Czech German and Swedish and now they’re mostly Mexican and Somali. There are three “mosques” in town but they call them Islamic Centers.



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Further Reading on M&C

Bruce Dern Biography - - Bruce Dern Movies -

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An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. ...more

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