Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: The Filmmaker Speaks Candidly About ‘Nebraska,’ Casting, Screenwriting and Craft
|I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Sept. 9 monthly salon in Culver City, Calif. sponsored by the Nebraska Coast Connection, a networking group for Nebraskans working in the film and television industry. I was there to promote my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, which you can order via thisblog site. The salon’s special guest that night was Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne, who spoke candidly about his new film Nebraska, casting, screenwriting and craft in a Q&A moderated by NCC founder Todd Nelson. The event was held at the classic Culver Hotel, where many film stars stayed back in the day. This is an edited transcript of part of Payne’s remarks.|
Part of the audience at Payne’s NCC salon appearance, ©photo by Travis Beck
Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: The Filmmaker Speaks Candidly About ‘Nebraska,’ Casting, Screenwriting and Craft
©Compiled bt Leo Adam Biga
Alexander Payne in conversation with Nebraska Coast Connection founder Todd Nelson
AP: “Hello, good evening, thank you for coming…”
TN: “You have a little movie coming out. A little black and white number you threw together over a weekend or two.”
AP: “No, longer than that. But it’s a small movie. That doesn’t mean it’s not dramatically resonant, but it’s a small movie.”
(Then Payne addressed how the project came to him and the background of how its screenwriter Robert Nelson came to write it.)
AP: “Nine years ago I got a script from Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the team that had produced Election. They came to me nine or 10 years ago with a script called Nebraska and it was written by a guy named Bob Nelson out of Snohomish, Wash. but his parents were from Hartington (Neb.). And it was based on his memory of his father’s and mother’s families. He used to spend his summers out there in Hartington in northeast Neb. and he wrote this script based on his memories of those summers and it really rang hilariously true. It was a very austere screenplay. Those producers said they suspected it was going to be small for me, too dinky a film.”
TN: “They thought you might know someone who…”
AP: “Yeah, ‘Do you know a young Neb. filmmaker who might want to do this?’ and I said, ‘No, I think I want to do it.’ They had wanted to make it for like $2 or $3 million, and I said, ‘How about like $10 or $12?’ I showed it not long afterwards to someone in attendance here tonight, John Jackson, my casting director, because I knew that this film would really live or die on his casting. I mean, all films do but even a couple percentage points more this one would because it’s as much anthropological as it is cinematic. And he liked it and thought he wanted to cast it. He said he felt a very personal connection to it through his family, whom he describes as dirt farmers from Iowa. That’s a bit of an exaggeration in a way with respect to the script but still it’s suggestive…
“A lot of the movie was a road trip and I was just finishing Sideways. I didn’t want to followup Sideways with another road trip film. It’s a real drag to shoot in cars and I just couldn’t do another car movie again after Sideways. Now The Descendants ended up having some stuff in cars too but anyway…the timing worked out and right after The Descendants I made it. They were nice enough to wait – the producers and the writer – and so it happened.”
TN: “It has Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Tell us about bringing them on board.”
AP: “Bruce Dern had first leapt to mind to play this part. All parts are tricky to cast in general but this one I think for John and me has been the trickiest. You know. I get praised sometimes for getting a certain controlled performance out of Jack Nicholson or that I get stars to create characters, that after 10 or 15 minutes of seeing a big star like George Clooney you can maybe, hopefully, of course it’s my aspiration, forget it’s a big star and just see the character…I never tailor a screenplay to fit the actor. I always demand the actor come to the script – even if it’s Nicholson or Clooney, who have certain strengths that most directors and screenwriters would wish to exploit.
“Naw, this is a text and it’s a part and yes you’re a star but you’re also an actor, so come to this and make it your own that way. This though I think has been the most specific lead part we’ve ever had to cast. Not anyone could play this guy Woody Grant. I looked back in film history and said, ‘Well, Henry Fonda could have played it like the way he did On Golden Pond, or Walter Brennan, or for you film buffs out there Charley Grapewin, or possibly John Carradine or possibly Warren Oates had he lived. But all those people are unavailable. After thinking about Bruce Dern, the only other guy who maybe could have done it, Gene Hackman, but I couldn’t get a meeting with Gene Hackman because he genuinely has retired. He won’t even return a phone call or a query. So it just came down to Bruce Dern.
“We did our due diligence and met 50 other guys and any one of them who could have done it would still be a stretch. Like this one could maybe do it but he has trouble learning lines or this one could maybe do it but you’d have to get him to not do this schtick or this one could maybe have done it but it would have taken more work on my part and every actor requires work anyway. Bruce required work but less work than any of those other guys would have required to get it right, so Bruce Dern’s the guy.”
TN: “Will Forte?”
AP: “Never would have thought about him in a billion years but he auditioned well. So I know often in these salons we get actors or casting people and I’m always happy to say that John and I rely on auditions, the old fashioned way. Even actors who are well known I still need them to come in and read the text, with all respect. I mean, even if it’s 10 words, say a few words, help me out, I have a pea brain, I don’t want to screw it up, and I don’t want to screw up and cast you in the wrong part and then it’s not right. We all benefit if we’re able to have a meeting. Well, what else are we going to talk about? Read the fucking script.
“And to good pros, the ones who won’t audition, but they will deign to have a meeting, the good ones will either consciously or unconsciously find the time in the meeting to say, ‘Oh, I loved the moment in your screenplay where he says…’ and he’ll do a little bit of it. That’s the courteous thing to do, that’s the polite thing to do because those actors who won’t even do that don’t get the job in my experience.
“Just about auditioning stuff I remember the actress Judy Greer, a super great old fashioned in the best way actor. She’s in The Descendants. She plays the lover’s wife. She calls herself an audition-only actress. She won’t take an offer and if there’s a meeting she insists on reading the script because she says it’s only when I read the text in front of the director do I know if I’m right for the part. So the direct line of communication between actor and director is that text. That’s just smart. What the hell else are we doing?
“June Squibb, she played the part of Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt (and she plays Bruce Dern’s wife in Nebraska)…I didn’t offer her…She didn’t occur to me, she sent in an audition. Even she had to audition. I had no idea she was going to be right for this part. It’s the Geraldine Page part or the Marjorie Main part from Ma and Pa Kettle. Basically Nebraska’s a glorified Ma and Pa Kettle film,” he said, deadpanning and elicting laughs.
(Payne discussed some more actors he’s worked with, why’s he’s particularly proud of the casting he and John Jackson did on Nebraska and how he tried to avoid certain pitfalls that come with mixing professional and nonprofessional actors on screen.)
“Tim Driscoll from Omaha, who had a small part in Citizen Ruth, came back for this one. And his sister (Delaney Driscoll) had a significant part in Election as Matthew Broderick’s lover.
“Whatever achievements this film Nebraska may or may not have for me it’s greatest achievement is its most significant marriage of professional and nonprofessional actors because to create that world it’s dependent equally on production design and casting. That’s what suggests that world is that flesh. We spent over a year doing it. The start date is here, the visual preproduction is here, the casting has to start here. You can’t fuck up casting, you’ve got to get the right people in every part and of course the leads and the secondary, tertiary parts have to be exactly right. It’s creating a world.
“I looked at a number of small town American films for this one. One of them in particular is an excellent film and it has professional actors but also people cast from that small town. But there’s a great chasm between the acting styles of the two. It’s like the faces of the real people lend what they’re supposed to lend which is authenticity, versmisilitude and all that but they’re not acting properly, even as versions of themselves. So I knew we had to spend time to get local people who could act as vividly as possible as versions of themselves but also to have the professional actors act flatter. They both had to meet in between. I like when professional actors act more flatly like people do in real life. People don’t gesticulate, go into histrionics in real life, not Midwesterners anyway.”
Me with Payne at NCC salon, ©photo by Travis Beck
(Nelson and Payne then made a few comments before screening the trailer for Nebraska.)
TN: “It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. A wild success I can witness – I was there. I saw a 15 minute standing ovation at the end of the film.”
AP: “Yeah, I’ve seen turkeys get a standing ovation at Cannes. It played better at Telluride.”
(Then, referring to the trailer, Payne said)-
AP: “This is a work in progress print.”
(After the screening someone in the audience commented about the Spanish sounding music, which prompted Payne to describe it as a)-
AP: ”More Mexican sounding trumpet piece.”
TN: ”We have a stack of questions” (on note cards, which Nelson began reading). What was your big break in the business?”
AP: “Uh, probably three. One was getting into UCLA film school. The second was making a hit short film out of UCLA film school, my student thesis film, The Passion of Martin. Making a very good film out of UCLA film school, it’s like that movie The Big Picture, it opened a lot of doors for me. It was still years before I made my first feature. Four big breaks…Another big break I would say was meeting Jim Taylor, my co-screenwriter because, well, a movie can be anything but the types of movies we talk about generally depend on two things, one is screenplay, the other is casting. But screenplay, screenplay, screenplay, and I was very fortunate to find a co-screenwriter early on. And then I have to say Election. You know, Citizen Ruth was OK, an ‘A’ for effort and all that, but it tanked at the box office and it was dumped by the distributor, Mirimax…
“The same producer who sent me this thing (Albert Berger and Nebraska) sent me Election, and that was a big break. In a very good year for – I don’t like this name, independent – but non-studio, authorial voiced films, 1999. It did very well, not at the box office necessarily. But it’s still the film I get the most compliments on. It’s my mother’s favorite of my films. I showed her Nebraska: ‘Yeah, it’s OK, but why you can’t make more like Election?’”
(Todd Nelson referred to once having been a neighbor of Payne’s in Calif. and having the opportunity of seeing Payne and Jim Taylor collaborate.
TN: “So tell us about the collaboration. A lot of people in the Nebraska Coast Connection often ask what it’s like to write with a writing partner.”
AP: “There seem to be three areas of narrative writing that lend themselves to collaboration – musicals, TV writing and screenwriting. A play is never cowritten or a novel is never cowritten. But movies often are, even by the great directors, Bergman and Fellini and Bertolucci. The great Italian and Japanese directors. Billy Wilder always had a collaborator. I think there’s something about the process which lends itself to casting a wider net for ideas. Sometimes when people collaborate on screenplays they divide and conquer, where maybe one is better at structure and the other is better at dialogue, or they outline together and one takes scenes one through 30 and the other takes scenes 31 through 60. Then they reunite and rewrite. We’re not like that at all, we’re always together in the same room.”
TN: “You had two keyboards on the same computer.”
AP: “Correct. We never outline, we never make out note cards or anything real distinct about what could happen next. Most of the time is spent not writing. Writing alone or writing with someone, in eight hours you’re only writing maybe 45 minutes in that eight horrs. The rest of the time you’re doing dishes, obsessively checking email, walking around, whatever it is. You need to set aside all that time to extract that hour of writing. One or the other will say, ‘I’ve got an idea, let’s do this,’ and then you pound out maybe two or three pages, then you sit down and rewrite and we chisel our way through the whole first draft.”
(Nelson remarked about Payne having inherited a script for The Descendants and directing Bob Nelson’s script for Nebraska, which prompted Payne to respond)-
AP: “I wrote The Descendants alone and I did a rewrite of this one (Nebraska).
(Nelson mentioned that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash wrote a draft of The Descendants and Payne clarified)’
AP: “They didn’t do the draft we shot.”
TN: “So you polished it up.”
AP: ”I didn’t polish it, I wrote it from scratch.”
(Regarding Nebraska, Payne said)-
“I rewrote it. Also uncredited, Phil Johnston, who wrote Cedar Rapids (which Payne produced), contributed some jokes, too, so i cast a wide net that way. I wrote the ending. I made it personal. I think it’s my job as a director to make it as personal as I can to me. It’s still Bob Nelson’s vision. It would never occur to me to seek screenwriting credit.”
(Then the discussion turned to Payne speaking frankly about the state of screenwriting today and why he writes his own films.)
AP: “I’ve always written out of desperation. I never imagined in film school, ‘Oh, I need to write and direct all my films.’ Who wants to write? Writing is awful. I had to do it because I never found anything other than Nebraska. Soon after film school I wanted to direct Wilder Napalm, which was written by Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad. That’s the only thing I wanted to direct was the Vince Gilligan script and I didn’t get the job. And then they made an unwatchable film out of it. They should have hired me. But yeah I open every screenplay with a prayer, ‘Please Lord let me want to direct it.’ But we’re not in that age of literate film scripts. I don’t have a Robert Riskin or Jules Furthman or Waldo Salt or Robert Towne and if they’re around they’re working for TV, they’re not doing movies.
“Movies suck. American movies in general suck except those done by writer-directors nowadays. We don’t have screenwriters writing for the movies. Like the big overdone, overwritten kind of crap…we don’t even have that anymore…We have nothing. In general. There are ex exceptions. So I’ve got to write it myself. I’ve never gotten one from my agent. They’ve never sent me one fucking script (that he directed) in 23 years of being out of film school, not one. The ones I’ve done which have come from outside of me: Election, unpublished manuscript; Sideways, unpublished manuscript; Nebraska, from someone out of Snohomish, Wash.; The Descendants was on its way to being published – I think we had the galleys.
“I hope there are exceptions, I want there to be exceptions, but in my experience in almost a quarter century it’s dismal. Or they’re not getting to me. But then again I look and see what is made and I think what’s been made that God I wish I had had that script. Nothing. Oh, a Charlie Kaufman script would have been fun to direct but he’s in with Spike Jonze.”
(Someone from the audience asks, “What’s broken about that system then?” and Payne answered)-
AP: “We’re in an age of shit for movies but we’re in a golden age for television. Everything is TV now, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Mad Men…That’s where all the quality is. But it’s a different thing, and then that form develops its own amazing virtues, an infinite time with characters. They’re not 2 hourrmovies, they’re like fables now. A character in a movie gets 2 hours whereas as a character in a TV show gets 50 hours. But I still believe in movies. I’m not working in TV. Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal came over to my house over the weekend and wants to write an article, Why should we still believe in movies when we have great TV? And I said movies changed my life, TV hasn’t, and also what do you want to do, go to Chartres Cathedral or stay at home and watch Mass for shut-ins? The quality is in movies. We spend two months mixing the sound, TV does it in two days. Even the greatest TV is mostly plot and character revealed through talking heads , wonderful actors and all that, but it’s dialogue basically. it’s theater, versus the juxtaposition of images, how music cuts in, the lighting, the instruments of cinema.
Shooting two pages a day versus shooting seven pages a day.
“I still believe in the movies.”
- When a Film Becomes a Film: The Shaping of Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Author Leo Adam Biga Joined Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Featuring Alexander Payne to Promote His Book About the Filmmaker, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Bruce Dern Sets Out On A Long Trip In This Brand New Trailer For Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013) (durnmoosemovies.wordpress.com)
- Hell Yes! First Trailer for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (blackiswhiteblog.wordpress.com)
- ‘Nebraska’ directed by Alexander Payne | Official Film Trailer (soundcolourvibration.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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