Alexander Payne’s Local Color: Payne and Co. Mine the Prairie Poetry of His Home State in New American Gothic Film, ‘Nebraska’
I’ve been anticipating Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska for a very long time. Some years ago he let me read the script by Bob Nelson. I was moved to laughs and tears by it and ever since then I’ve eagerly awaited Payne’s interpretation of it on the screen. As I write this I’ve now seen the film twice and will soon be seeing it a third time. Its depth of emotion coupled with its visual black and white beauty and aching honesty set the film apart from just about anything out there by an American filmmaker today. I believe it to be Payne’s best work to date. I know a little something about the filmmaker, having closely covered him and his work since 1997. I have a book out with my collected jounralism about him titled Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. It contains some two dozen of my Payne stories from 1998 through 2012 and soon I will be coming out with a new edition featuring my extensive Nebraska coverage. My latest story about the film is shared with you here. It recently appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). I fully expect to file a new story about Nebraska come Academy Awards time, when the film should fare very well. You can find my earlier stories about Nebraska on this blog. I’ll salso be adding another Nebraska story I just finished for the New Horizons. Additionally, I will be posting extended interviews I did with Payne, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, Bob Nelson, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and producer Albert Berger.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Excerpt from a story that originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Local color, of the achingly human variety, is where Alexander Payne’s new black and white film Nebraska most deeply comes to life.
After fall festival premieres abroad and across the U.S., Payne’s coming home to show off the film named for his native state and primarily shot and set here. Nebraska had an exclusive limited run at Film Streams. On Nov. 24 Payne joins stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte at the Holland Performing Arts Center for the Film Streams fundraiser, Feature V, that will find the troika interviewed on stage by Studio 360 host and novelist Kurt Andersen.
The following day Payne and Dern travel to Norfolk, Neb., the production’s base camp last fall while the project filmed in nearby Hartington, Plainview and environs, to premiere the picture there.
Oscar-winner Payne is a stickler for the truth and with the by-turns elegiac and silly Nebraska he went to extreme lengths finding the people and places that ring true to his and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s vision of Midwest America.
“This is the most authentically Neb. feature film I’ve released to date,” says Payne, who previously made Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt in-state.
Casting director John Jackson and Payne searched long and hard for the right players to animate the oddball yet familiar characters Nelson created on the page. In a rare star turn winning him much acclaim Bruce Dern so fully inhabits his old codger of a character, Woody Grant, that despite the actor’s well-known face and voice he disappears into the part to become just another of the story’s small town denizens.
Dern plays Woody as written: a taciturn man of stoic roots and repressed pain long alienated from everyone around him. Feeling a failure near the end of his life, he’s desperate for some validation and so gets it in his head that he’s a sweepstakes winner. His son David, played by Will Forte, takes him on an epic journey to claim the prize. Amid the missteps and detours comes discovery, empathy and closure. As their strained relationship warms the son gives his father a gift born of understanding, forgiveness and love.
One of the reasons Payne says Dern leapt to mind when he originally read the script a decade ago is that like the actor’s actress daughter Laura Dern, who starred in Payne’s feature debut Citizen Ruth, he doesn’t worry about what he looks like on screen. To convincingly play the gone-to-seed Woody the actor inhabiting the role had to look a wreck.
“Those Derns don’t have vanity,” Payne says admiringly. “They’ll do anything, they want to do anything. When working they’re more interested in hitting a certain level of truth, an often ugly truth or pathetic truth, and now you’re talking my language.”
About what made Dern the right fit, Payne says, “Bruce is a handsome guy when he’s cleaned up and obviously as you can see in the film when he’s not cleaned up he can really look like a coot and a weirdo. If you took many other actors and tried to do the same thing they’d look fake. The guy would have to portray someone cut off from others and lost in his own world. Woody’s probably been like that somewhat his whole life but as a young man they just thought he was reticent. Now he’s a coot and ornery and pissed off at himself that he hasn’t done anything with his life and now he’s about to start taking a dirt nap. I think that’s certainly what’s driving Woody’s crazy mission in some part.
“When I thought about who could communicate that I thought of Bruce.”
Payne felt Dern could express the two sides of Woody as both prick and pushover who can’t refuse doing favors, even if it means being taken advantage of. He also detected “a certain childlike nature” in Dern that aligned with Woody’s fragility.
“I think within Woody’s ornery crust there is something of a child – of a very disillusioned and disappointed child.”
Indeed, we first meet Woody as he’s running away from home.
“There’s also a sweetness about Woody and Bruce is a sweet guy. He hasn’t often played that.”
Dern acknowledges it’s a departure for him. “Throughout my career I’ve been flamboyant in a lot of roles, especially flamboyantly evil, and there’s a certain style that goes with that.” Nebraska called for him to be a dull, muted, passive presence.
“What the role demanded was a character who appeared to not be touched too much or too little,” he says, “and probably not touched at all. And if he touches other people it’s without planning to do it. He’s just who he is and he’s always going to be that way. I think he’s a fair man, Woody, and that’s another thing I based the character on a lot. Because he’s fair he believes what people tell him because he doesn’t know why anybody would want to lie to him about anything.”
The tangibles and intangibles of a character go into any casting decision.
“When you cast someone in a lead you’re not casting just his or her ability to act,” says Payne. “you’re casting the substance or essence of their person. There’s two things going on simultaneously seemingly contradictory but not. One is you want them to become that person in the script yet at the same time not act.”
Dern says Payne has an uncanny way of communicating what he wants, variously tapping “your strengths and weaknesses and sometimes invading your privacy” to extract the emotion or tone he’s after.
Actors Studio veteran Dern believes he achieved a progressive in-the-moment reality in Nebraska he’d never accomplished before on a film.
“I’ve always wanted to be a human being and just kind of acting-wise leave myself alone and not perform and I don’t think there’s really a moment in the movie where I perform – in other words take it above the context of what it really is. The first day of the movie Alexander said to me, ‘I’d like you to let Mr. Papamichael (cinematographer) and I do our jobs,’ meaning don’t show me anything, let me find it with the camera, and that’s what he did and that’s what you see.
“That doesn’t mean I wasn’t acting. It was as hard a role as I’ve had to take on but I feel I owed it to the material and to my career for just once in my life to try and have as many consecutive moment-to-moment pure moments of behavior. That’s what I began when I worked with Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasberg in the Actor’s Studio – how much moment-to-moment real behavior can you have? And I think in Nebraska I’ve done far and away the most I’ve had in an entire film.”
Forte, a relative newcomer to acting after years writing for television, says he learned a lot from his co-star.
“Bruce would always say, ‘Just be truthful,’ and that always sounded like acting mumbo jumbo to me coming in but for some reason the way he would explain it and describe it it made sense. There’s such an honesty that comes from his performance and all the performances that it really taught me a lot to watch everyone work.”
Dern says Payne lived up to what his daughter Laura and his old acting chum Jack Nicholson, who starred in the director’s About Schmidt, told him about the filmmaker: “They both said in separate conversations he’ll be the best teammate you’ve ever had. They were right. I feel it’s the best team, overall, I’ve ever had.”
Payne, whose sets are famously relaxed, says he also casts with an eye to who will “be nice to work with” and contribute to the playfulness he believes essential to good filmmaking. “I want to be there to play. I don’t know exactly how it (any scene) should be, I’m there to sort of say, ‘Oh, well, let’s try this and let’s try that, nudging the machine toward a certain direction. It’s not all preconceived, you’re discovering it day by day, so I think you want actors who are willing to have a sense of, Let’s be playful and free. It’s all about having fun, and that will create something none of us have thought of exactly.”
Dern says he’s glad it took nearly a decade to get the film made – the project came to Payne as the filmmaker was setting up Sideways – because “I wasn’t ready to play this role a few years ago.” The passage of time put some more natural wear and tear on Dern, both physically and emotionally. The limp he walks with in the film is real, if exaggerated, and the way Woody leaves things unsaid is something Dern says he’s been guilty of himself and regrets.
Similarly, Payne’s personal life caught up with the experience of David in Nebraska as an adult child dealing with aging parents. Payne’s father is in a nursing home and his mother recently survived a serious health scare.
“I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folks,” Payne says. “Everyone I know of my generation at that age has parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy. How we take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, and how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off, all those questions. It wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal. The fact that I had that much more life experience for this film with respect to my parents, I think helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”
Payne says the bottomed-out economy also enhanced the austere shooting style and stark look of the film, adding, “Those winds blew their way into the film as well and it becomes more of a modern-day Depression film.”
Undoubtedly some will take umbrage at the film’s portrayals of quirky. salt-of-the-earth types. But if the strong reception the picture’s received at the Cannes, Telluride and New York film festivals, among others, is any indication, than most audiences realize Payne and his collaborators sought archetype, not caricature in bringing to life small town inhabitants and the dysfunctional Grant family.
“I hope what people take away from this movie is his genuine love for Neb. because he really does love Neb.,” says Forte
Dern calls the film “a love poem” to Neb. from Payne.
Payne, Nelson, Jackson, Papamichael, editor Kevin Tent assorted other crew and the ensemble cast all committed to realizing authentic portraits of this comic-dramatic Midwest Gothic tale.
YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN THE SOON TO BE RELEASED NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective
(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through his new film Nebraska in 2013)
This compilation of my extensive articles about Payne and his work will be available in February 2014.
- Film Review: Nebraska (pop-break.com)
- ‘Nebraska': Alexander Payne on Bruce Dern’s ‘perfect casting’ (latimes.com)
- ‘Nebraska': Bruce Dern, movie deliver in a big way, critics say (latimes.com)
- Will Forte Talks NEBRASKA, His Greatest Fears During the Shoot, What he Learned from Bruce Dern, MACGRUBER 2, and More (collider.com)
- Actor Bruce Dern Gets Up Close And Personal In ‘Nebraska’ (npr.org)
- A Star Turn, at 77, in Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ (nytimes.com)
- Alexander Payne’s New Film ‘Nebraska’ Features Senior Cast and Aging Themes in Story Sure to Resonate with Many Viewers (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Casting director John Jackson helps build Alexander Payne’s film worlds (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)