Omaha’s film culture is radically improved over even a decade ago. One of the reasons for that is the Omaha Film Festival, an annual film orgy now in its ninth year. It’s the city’s single largest and most intense concentration of film and even though the actual festival only happens once a year the organization sponsors special screenings and events throughout the year to keep the cinema embers burning. Taken together with the metro’s lone full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, which operates year-round, locals and visitors alike have a huge selection of films and film events to choose from. Less than an hour away another great art cinema, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, operates in Lincoln, Neb. The state also boasts a robust film community made up industry professionals who reside here, including three Oscar winners (writer-director Alexander Payne, editor Mike Hill, and cinematographer Mauro Fiore) and several others who’ve distinguished themselves in film (Sandy Venziano, John Beasley, Nik Fackler, Lew Hunter, Mark Hoeger, Dana Altman, Richard Dooling). A recent addition to that community is Timothy Christian, whose Night Fox Entertainment is a film financing and producing company. Payne brings a steady diet of Hollywood with him courtesy of the features he makes here, most recently Nebraska, and the film figures he invites here (Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderberg, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb).
The 2014 Omaha Film Festival is underway as I write this. It runs March 5-9 at the Marcus Village Pointe Cinema. On this same blog see my companion feature story on Omaha native James Marshall Crotty, who has two documentaries in the fest, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids.
Omaha Film Festival turns nine
by Leo Adam Biga
The March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival has gone all digital with its move from Regal Omaha Stadium 16 to Marcus Village Pointe Cinema at 304 No. 174th Street.
Besides the sharper projection offered, OFF Program director Marc Longbrake says the new site is near a higher density population area and the cineplex gets more traffic than the Regal. This marks the fourth venue change in the nine-year history of the little little festival that could, whose growth has been steady if not spectacular.
Ninety-two films from around the nation and the world (20 countries), including several from Neb. and surrounding states, will be screened.
Among the narrative features with a trail of buzz behind them are the opening night selection Obvious Child with its cast of bright newcomers and veteran character actors, the Friday night special Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the closing night entry Fading Gigolo with Sofia Vergara, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Live Schreiber and John Turturro, who wrote-directed it.
Documentary filmmakers from here who have work represented in the fest include James Marshall Crotty (Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids), Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette (Growing Cities) and Elizabeth Bohart (Watchers of the Sky). Theo Love, whose family is from Neb., directed Little Hope was Arson.
The live-action shorts include one, Afronauts, co-starring Omaha native Yolonda Ross, who’s drawing raves for her work in the new John Sayles film Go for Sisters (March 25 at Film Streams).
Longbrake says the five-day event is not only an opportunity for filmgoers to see loads of new work but for filmmakers to get their blood, sweat and tears seen by a live audience.
“As a filmmaker you work so hard to get your film made, then you sit in an editing room for a year to finish it, and it’s one thing to send it out to have people review it but it’s another thing to sit in a room with 200 people and have them react to the film and then do a Q&A afterwards.”
For the second year Writer’s Theatre, under the direction of Aaron Zavitz, will showcase live readings of the 16 finalist scripts in the OFF screenplay competition. Several of the scripts are by locals.
The fest’s annual conference will as usual feature guests with serious industry chops. This year’s lineup includes screenwriters Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire) and Steve Faber (Wedding Crashers).
For schedule and ticket info, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.
Sick Birds Die Easy falls uneasily in that long lineage of films about Westerners who go to Third World nations and become part of the legacy of exploitation that happens there. Nik Fackler’s new film set mostly in the jungles of Gabon, Africa is a wonderfully strange concoction because part of his intent with it was to indict the sort of post-colonial entitlement and paternalism that finds privileged Westerners spoiling paradises, in this case ancient Bwiti culture and the use of Iboga, with their poisioned attitudes and behaviors. His other intent was to find healing for a crew member and friend. But since his film straddles the line of documentary and fictional film, with some scenes real and others fabricated, it may actually have the reverse affect of what he intended. Regardless of how you feel about what he depicts and how he depicts it, he does capture arresting, sometimes beauitfully surreal visuals and poses some profound questions. It is one of those works that will likely leave you hot or cold about it. It took me two or three viewings before I fell into its quixotic internal rhythms and logic. This weird mash-up of The Last Movie, The Emerald Forest and Apocalpyse Now is definitely worth a look. It’s been playing festivals and now it’s come to his hometown, Omaha, for a one-night only screening at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at Film Streams. The writer-director will do a Q&A after the show. This is my soon to appear piece about the project for The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Nik Fackler’s ‘Sick Birds Die Easy’ captures a paradise lost
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Filmmaker, musician and psychedelia aficionado Nik Fackler is a millennial seeker. It’s no surprise then he followed his well-crafted made-in-Omaha feature debut Lovely, Still (2008) with documentaries exploring cultures half-a-world away.
One doc brought him to Nepal to capture the phenomenon of a boy buddha returned from remote self-exile back into civilization. That untitled film is as yet unfinished. The completed other doc, Sick Birds Die Easy, brought Fackler to Ebando Village in Gabon, Africa in 2011, to contrast ancient Bwiti culture with modern Western culture.
After a taxing shoot and edit the visually-arresting Sick Birds hit festivals last year. Now it has a one-night screening at Film Streams. Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. Fackler will do a post-show Q&A.. He’ll surely address the pic’s self-referential depiction of privileged cultural tourists, namely himself and his crew, experimenting with Iboga and its well-known hallucinogenic effects and reputed healing properties and the surreal, self-indulgent weirdness that ensued.
Fackler intentionally encouraged mayhem – from giving every crew member a camera to not securing an interpreter to bringing along two addicts to working without a structure.
“Shooting the film was a complete disaster,” he says. “I was setting up a disaster for myself because that’s what I wanted it to be.”
Mentor-producer Dana Atman reluctantly went and soon regretted it.
“He didn’t want to do it, he didn’t want to come to Africa,” Fackler says of Altman, who’s since taken a step back from filmmaking. “He had the hardest job. There’s so much behind the scenes he had to deal with, like how difficult it was to get us fed and how the Ebando were constantly renegotiating how much money we needed to give them for their help. This was happening every day and it was all on Dana’s shoulders. There were a lot of times he wouldn’t come on set.”
Several days of shooting presented Fackler, who edited alone, a daunting task once back home.
“Editing Sick Birds was hell. I had literally hundreds of hours of footage.
It was like taking a pile of chaos and making order out of it. It’s definitely a film made in the editing room.
“I didn’t know what documentary editing was going to be like. I should have known it would take a lot longer than narrative. It’s a really tough process.”
The project’s harsh realities – everyone got wasted and sick and relationships were strained – humbled Fackler. But playing God still comes with the territory. In voice-over narration and interviews he makes clear he sought to find in Gabon a lost Eden that is the antithesis of the West. From his POV America is a sick nation that destroys the indigenous cultures it touches. In this first-person, Werner Herzog-like immersion into a strange land he shows the collision of two cultures and the inevitable spoiling and corrupting of paradise.
Even though he says off-camera, “This is not the film I meant to make,” he clearly manipulates things to arrive where he intended to be.
The set-up finds Fackler enlisting two addict friends for the journey. Small farmer-actor-comedian Ross Brockley spouts paranoia, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. He ostensibly goes to kick his heroin habit. Musician-poet-alcoholic Sam Martin goes as the company’s resident “minstrel” and acerbic archival of Ross. In Gabon the team meets Tatayo, a French expatriate initiate in Bwiti spiritual practices whose gone jungle wild with mysticism, ritual and drugs (think Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now).
We appear to see Fackler and his on-screen crew, all playing versions of themselves, shooting a doc. Fackler is the intrepid writer-director seemingly intent on getting his film at any cost. But the film was actually lensed by Lovely, Still director of photography Sean Kirby, who’s unseen and only referred to in the credits.
Fackler acknowledges some dramatic moments in his film-within-a-film were staged. Given this odd melange, which he calls “a hyper creative” hybrid of documentary and drama, he may field some tough questions from purists who prefer more definition or transparency.
So is Sick Birds real or contrived?
“It’s all those things,” he says. “What’s real is the guts of it, the history and Bwiti, my interviews with Tatayo, the Iboga ceremony, Ross getting up in the middle of it and yelling at Tatayo. None of that was planned. When you see us all fucked up on Iboga and tired we really are fucked up and tired. That’s pretty accurate. That was part of the disaster.”
Montage of production stills from Sick Birds Die Easy
Real or not, the film indicts self-indulgent Westerners running amok in a pristine land.
Fackler says he did assemble an edit where he revealed at the end “it was all fake” but he preferred the “enigma of weirdness and questions.” That other version, he says, “didn’t spawn any questions or conversation, but when people thought it was real it spawned this wave of conversation. I loved that.”
“The lesson I learned is that the more you research the great enigmas you’re going to get more questions. There are no answers.”
Besides, he adds, “Bwiti is a trickster culture and the film itself is a trickster film. It’s not a traditional film. It’s not one that is safe in any way. What I like about the art of filmmaking is you can take people to a place and attempt to put them in a mind-altered state. I like mind-altered states. I like to show there’s more to life than just your current perception.”
With Sick Birds Fackler tried breaking from hidebound filmmaking.
“There’s different ways of doing film. I did the music video thing (for Saddle Creek Records label artists), and I did the narrative feature thing and learned about using my intuition through that. I’d go to set every day with Lovely, Still with a shot list and by the end of shooting I didn’t have anything, I was just showing up on set and looking at everything and saying, ‘OK, this is how to shoot this scene.’ This (Sick Birds) was an extreme version of that.”
Nik Fackler gone jungle wild
Even though no one’s “saved” in the end, Fackler says, “I really believe in Iboga and I’ve seen it work for people. But I learned you can’t change people. If anything, Ross has gotten even more paranoid.”
Fackler, a recreational drug user and alternative health adherent, hopes his film’s depiction of wayward Westerners doesn’t distort the path of fellow travelers seeking enlightenment and cure,
“I wouldn’t want Ebondo Village to get flooded with 18 year-olds dropping acid. though psychedelic tourism is happening. I don’t want to be promoting this type of behavior. I was trying to expose it. I don’t want to hurt Bwiti’s cause or this underground movement of trying to heal drug addicts.”
Fackler’s glad for the experience.
“Lovely, Still is very much the film of a child and Sick Birds Die Easy is the film of a rebellious teenager. This film is very much about me growing up and the harsh hit of reality, the fear, not having answers to anything, rising from that dark night. I think it was a very important step for me as a filmmaker. I feel I succeeded making a film that could have been given up on. I’m proud of it.”
As for what’s next, he says, “The art you’re making is directly connected to the searching you’re doing within yourself. As long as I don’t stop searching I will be making art. That’s my way of understanding what I’m searching for.”
Alexander Payne’s New Film ‘Nebraska’ Features Senior Cast and Aging Themes in Story Sure to Resonate with Many Viewers
This is my sixth published story on Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska and it takes a somewhat unique slant on the movie’s senior cast and aging themes. The angle I take was predicated by the publication I wrote the piece for, the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. If you’ve seen the film or even clips of it, then you already know it prominently features several older actors and deals with some of the challenges that accompany aging. In the piece Bruce Dern and some of his senior co-stars comment on how they are still working at the top of their craft even in their 70s and 80s. Indeed, Dern believes he delivered his finest performance in “Nebraska.” Will Forte talks about what it was like collaborating with such a veteran cast. They all talk about what it was like working with Payne. You can find my other Nebraska stories on this blog.
In case you’re new to this blog or to my work, then you should know that I am the author of the book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, a collection of my journalism about the filmmaker over a 15-year period. A new edition of the book will be coming out in 2014 with all my Nebraska coverage.
© by Leo Adam Biga
Excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the New Horizons
Oscar-winning native son Alexander Payne famously feels affection for his home state, so much so he’s made four of his six feature films here, even titling his new movie starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte, Nebraska.
Payne, the writer-director of Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants, has with Nebraska forever burnished the name of this place in cinema history.
The film stands apart from most flicks today. For starters, it’s black and white. Next, it captures elements of this Great Plains state never before seen on the big screen. Largely filmed in northeast Neb., the movie shows the rolling landscapes, prosaic farmsteads, played-out small towns and crusty denizens of this starkly beautiful rural region
The Nebraska Gothic picture plays like a funny, tragic and sad still life evocation of people and places rubbed raw by weather and misfortune.
But what really makes Nebraska a singular work is the preponderance of older folks in the picture and the various aging themes that permeate its storyline. Several senior-aged actors are featured in the nostalgia-laced story starting with Dern as protagonist Woody Grant, June Squibb as his piss-and-vinegar wife, Stacy Keach as his arch nemesis, Angela McEwan as his old flame, Mary Louise Wilson as his chatty sister-in-law Martha and Rance Howard as one of his brothers.
Payne’s casting director, John Jackson, is impressed by what these actors of a certain age bring to the table.
Jackson says, “They are pros. They are inspirational to me. Their desire to create, passion to succeed, pursuit of challenges to themselves as performers – I want that as I age. I can only hope to be as fully functional as Mr. Dern, Mary Louise Wilson, June Squibb and Stacy Keach.”
The movie’s fanciful tale revolves around Dern’s character of Woody, an unrepentant lech and cantankerous cuss who’s lost some bearings in old age. He’s seemingly unaffected by anything but hides a deep well of hurt, longing and regret. Like many males of his Depression-era generation he’s doesn’t reveal much in the way of feelings.
Much to the exasperation of his wife and two adult sons, he’s stuck in his ways and bad habits and refuses to change. He’s also facing some challenges that come with advancing years. For example, he’s no longer able to drive and he walks with a halting gait. He appears depressed, confused and cut off from others.
When we first meet Woody he’s running away from home, intent on walking the 900 miles from his home in Billings, Mt. to Lincoln, Neb. to claim a sweepstakes prize he believes he’s won. Even when returned home no one can convince Woody he’s got it wrong. More than once, he lights out to tramp alongside busy roads, in all kinds of weather, his son David coming to his rescue.
Realizing his old man is still bound and determined to go and afraid his father will be a hazard if he sets out again on his own David reluctantly agrees to take him to Lincoln, convinced Woody will come to his senses before they get too far. But things happen. The father-son road trip turns into a retracing of Woody’s old haunts in his native Neb, Along the way the son learns some hard truths about his father’s past that help explain the way he is and what’s behind this crazy Don Quixote quest to redeem a prize.
Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging experts say they don’t know of a senior who’s gone so far as to show up at a sweepstakes office expecting to collect their winnings. ENOA Care Management Program coordinator Diane Stanton says some seniors do mistake marketing pieces for actual checks and bring them to their bank thinking they can cash them. “That will happen unfortunately,” she says.
Legitimate sweepstakes are one thing, but there are scams that prey on the trusting nature and sometimes naivete of seniors.
“We encourage our seniors to never give out personal information on the phone,” says Stanton, adding that one should never have to divulge private details or send money as a condition for receiving a prize. “The Better Business Bureau has a Senior Line, 877-637-3334, that we strongly encourage our seniors to keep by their phone and to call anytime they suspect they’re being scammed.”
Stanton says the free service hotline frequently updates the newest scams to avoid.
Whether Woody’s gullible or addled or simply wants to believe he’s won, it becomes apparent what he’s really seeking is redemption. He wants to leave his boys something to salvage his misbegotten life. In an act of unconditional love and forgiveness David poignantly grants him a valedictory moment at the end. Woody’s problems are still with him but he and his son have become closer and the lines of communication opened. We’re left with the feeling that should something happen to Woody or his wife, David will be there for them.
Experts say adult children need to discuss with aging parents those limitations affecting quality of life and what role they’ll play in terms of support and caregiving.
ENOA Information and Assistance Program coordinator Gloria Erickson says her office fields a variety of calls each week from adult children inquiring about everything from financial assistance to home care to senior housing to transportation for their aging parents.
If an adult child feels his or her parent is a potential risk driving, a good course of action is to seek professional consultation.
“The first thing you need to do is talk to their doctor and get the doctor’s perspective and opinion on where they are physically and cognitively in regards to driving,” says Stanton. “That’s the first step. And then talking about the need for one of the driver assessments.”
Stanton says Immanuel Hospital and AARP offer assessments or evaluations to help determine if seniors are still able to drive safely. AARP also offers a self-test seniors can take online.
Assessments or not, an adult child may still need to have a conversation with an aging parent about surrendering their keys.
“Those heart to heart discussions are tough,” says Erickson because it means the parent may be giving up some of their independence. “Family dynamics have a lot to do too with how things go.”
ENOA Community Services division program coordinator Karen Kelly says whatever aspect of daily living a senior may need assistance with, it’s always best to give them options.
She says among the changes adult children should look out for in their aging parents are increased memory loss, growing social isolation, worsening sleep issues and increasing difficulty taking stairs and keeping up their home.
As adult children notice changes in their parents, she says they need to address what can they “do to help and step in to fill in those gaps” and to determine when to “start looking outside the family for help.”
Erickson says it’s vital family members know “you don’t have to do it alone.” ENOA offers direct services and refers callers to other resource providers as needed.
Alexander Payne says he was better prepared to tell the story of Nebraska in 2012 than in 2003 when he acquired the script by Bob Nelson because his own life caught up with the film’s themes. His father George was placed in a nursing home and his mother Peggy endured a health scare. Payne’s attended to it all.
“I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folk,” he says. “I’m at that age and everyone I know of my generation at that age have parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy, and 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 and I think that helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”
Not every senior needs special assistance. Indeed, most get along just fine on their own and still work, recreate, make love and learn. Take the older actors who populate Nebraska. Angela McEwan, who plays Peg Nagy, the editor of the newspaper in Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, Neb., says she and her fellow actors of a certain age are busy professionals who haven’t lost a beat. In fact, she says, “We’re at the top of our game.”
Casting director John Jackson saw both Mary Louise Wilson and Stacy Keach on stage in New York during the casting process of Nebraska and was inspired by their vitality.
“Both were terrific. Mary Louise was doing what was essentially a two-person show. That is a tremendous amount of energy to put out each week, each night. Mr. Keach was on Broadway. Big theater. Long run. Lead role. Wow. Good on them. They’ve set the bar high, both for themselves and others. That’s what I want for myself as I age. More. Better.”
In the film these actors vividly play characters their own age who still stir with passion and energy. McEwan’s character was once in love with Woody. Near the end she gives a wistful look that suggests she still yearns for what might have been. Wilson plays a chattering busybody. Keach portrays an intimidating man set on getting what he feels he’s owed.
The film overturns aging myths by demonstrating that even well into our Golden Years we can remain not only physically active but cognitively sharp and emotionally full. A positive spin on aging is encouraged by ENOA experts who say it’s healthier to think in terms of assets or what can be done versus deficits or what can’t be done.
Forte, best known for his long stint on Saturday Night Live, was moved by how engaged his veteran co-stars were.
“It was just a delight and an honor to get to work with these people,” he says. “They’re just such amazing actors. I learned a lot from them because I think at times I could be over-thinking stuff and it just reminded me, Oh, don’t try to act too much, just be real. Like Bruce (Dern) 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 these performances that it really taught me a lot to watch them.”
Forte got close to Dern, who in real life is old enough to be his grandfather, during the two months they worked on the shoot.
“It was very similar to our characters in the movie – we really got to spend a lot of time together and by the end of it we were incredibly close. It just feels like we’re family now. I learned so much from him. He was good to me. He was such a good teacher and friend. Nurturing, encouraging, patient. I can’t say enough about him, and that’s just personally.
“Professionally, to get to watch what that man does in this movie…I don’t know what I will do in the future but it will be one of the highlights of my life to get to see such a special performance from that close up. It’s something I will always remember.”
Forte says he was already a fan of Dern’s work before the project.
“I have watched so many Bruce Dern movies and he is the kind of person who I will rewind scenes to watch because he’s so interesting. The performance he gives in this movie is mesmerizing. We’ve done a lot of screenings of this movie and I’ve seen it quite a few times now and I’m just always seeing new things I never saw before. He continues to amaze me with different subtleties. It is such a privilege to get to be in this movie with him.”
This wasn’t the first time Payne’s worked with older actors. Jack Nicholson was in his late 60s when he played the title character in the filmmaker’s About Schmidt. June Squibb, the actress who appears as Dern’s wife in Nebraska, was in her 70s when she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt. Robert Forster was 70 when he essayed his small but telling part in The Descendants. Just like Forte finds it educational working with veterans, Payne does too.
“I’ve adored working with the ‘old pros’ — Nicholson, Dern, Keach and Forster. They are the best actors to work with,” says Payne. ‘They know what they’re doing and they know how to study the director to see what movie he or she’s trying to make. Plus, I have much to learn from them about what it is to have a life in movies. After all, I don’t get to work with and learn from older directors, but I do get to have the actors. “
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.
- Local Color: Alexander Payne and Co. Mine the Prairie Poetry of His Home State in the New American Gothic Film, ‘Nebraska’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Bruce Dern: black and white and all colour in Nebraska (theguardian.com)
- Hit and Myth: Nebraska (stunningguidance.wordpress.com)
- Movie Review: Dern, Squibb, Forte and Keach all shine in “Nebraska” (rogersmovienation.com)
- With ‘Nebraska,’ Payne enters state of hilarious seriousness (dailyherald.com)
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)