Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ Comes Home to Roost: The State’s Cinema Prodigal Son is Back Filming Again in his Home State after Long Absence
I call Alexander Payne Neb.’s cinema prodigal son because he left here to find himself as a filmmaker, then he came back to make his first three features in his home state, only to leave again to make Sideways and The Descendants in faraway Calif. and Hawaii, respectively. And now, after a 11-year absence filming here he’s back shooting his new pic, Nebraska. In truth, he was never really gone-gone. He’s maintained a residence in Omaha all along and has returned innumerable times for all sorts of things. That he’s returned to make a feature with the name of his native state in the title and is doing so after the immense success of The Descendants only makes Payne, who’s already the most compelling living Nebraskan outside perhaps Warren Buffett, only more a figure of intense interest. The following cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the first of what I anticipate will be a whole string of pieces I do related to this film. My reporting on the project converges with my new book out on the filmmaker, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012, which you’ll find plenty of posts about on this blog. My coverage of Nebraska will undoubtedly end up in future editions of the book.
Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ Comes Home to Roost: The State’s Cinema Prodigal Son is Back Filming Again in His Home State after Long Absence
©by Leo Adam Biga
Excerpt of a story that originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In 1968 Francis Ford Coppola led a small cinema caravan to Ogallala, Neb. for the final weeks shooting on his independent road picture The Rain People starring Shirley Knight. Joining them were future fellow film legends George Lucas, Bill Butler, Robert Duvall and James Caan.
Now a road pic of another kind, Nebraska, is underway here by native prodigal son Alexander Payne. For his first filming on his home turf since 2001 Payne’s lit out into northeast Neb. to make a fourth consecutive road movie after the wandering souls of his About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants.
Nebraska began shooting October 15 around Norfolk, where the production’s headquartered, and will complete 35 days of principal photography by the end of November. A week of second unit work will run into early December.
The project is set up between Payne, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa’s Bona Fide Productions and Paramount Pictures.
Despite proclamations he doesn’t care for road movies, much less shooting in cars, Payne’s once again attached himself to a story of lost and broken people careening to some revelation about themselves.
Asked why he keeps returning to this theme or structure, he says, “I have no idea, I personally don’t really like road movies all that much and it’s all I seem to make. No, none of it’s intentional, I’m a victim. Yeah, it just happened.”
Characters hitting the road is a classic metaphorical device for any life-as-journey exploration and Payne’s not so much reinvented this template as made it his own.
“I think self-discovery is a big theme in his movies,” says Berger.
The protagonist of Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) goes in search of meaning via his mobile home after his life is knocked asunder. In Sideways buddies Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) indulge in a debauched tour of Calif. wine country that rekindles the love impulse in one and confirms the unreliability of the other.
The by-car, boat and foot journey of The Descendants is propelled when Matt King (George Clooney) discovers his dying wife’s infidelity and sets off to find her lover. What he really finds is closure for his pain and the father within him he’d forgotten.
The bickering father-son of Nebraska, Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte), hold different agendas for their trek along the highways and byways of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and northern Nebraska. Woody, a unrepentant, alcoholic old coot estranged from everyone in his life, is hellbent on collecting a sweepstakes prize that doesn’t exist. David, the good-hearted but exasperated son, decides to placate his pops by promising to drive him from Billings. Mont. to the prize company’s home office in Lincoln, Neb. by way of several detours. He’s sure his father will come to his senses long before their destination.
This mismatched pair’s road-less-traveled adventure in the son’s car finds them passing through Woody’s old haunts, including his hometown, the fictional Hawthorne, Neb., a composite of Hartington, Wausa, Bloomfield, Norfolk and other rural burgs. At nearly every stop they encounter the detritus from Woody’s life, which like the broken down Ford pickup in his garage he can’t get to run is a shambles of regret and recrimination. Woody’s made the fool wherever he goes.
A longtime nemesis, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), is a menacing presence.
By story’s end this father-son journey turns requiem. To salve his father’s broken spirit David performs a simple act of grace that gives Woody a valedictory last laugh.
Producer partners Berger and Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine), who shepherded Payne’s Election in conjunction with Paramount and MTV Films (1999), brought Bob Nelson’s original script for Nebraska to the filmmaker’s attention a decade ago.
Payne says, “Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa had gotten a hold of it, and asked me to read it, not thinking I would want to direct it myself. They wanted to know if there was some young up and coming Neb. director I knew about who could make it for a very, very low sum, and I read it and I liked it and I said, ‘How about me and for a sum not quite so low?’ And so it was, and they’ve been kind enough to wait for me these eight or nine years since I first read it.
“I read it before making Sideways but I didn’t want to follow up Sideways with another road trip. I was tired of shooting in cars. I didn’t think it would take this long, I didn’t think Downsizing (his as yet unrealized comedy about miniaturization) would take so long to write in between. And then The Descendants came along and now I’ve circled back around to this austere Neb. road trip story.”
The story’s essential appeal for Payne is its deceptive simplicity.
“I liked its austerity, I liked its deadpan humor, I like how the writer clearly was writing about people he knew and representing them faithfully to a certain degree but also sardonically. And I’ve never seen a deadpan, almost Jim Jarmusch sort of comedy that takes place in rural Nebraska.”
The barren, existential landscape should find ample expressive possibilities in the black-and-white, wide-screen visuals Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Sideways, The Descendants) plan capturing. Papamichael says the palette they’ve hit upon after much testing emphasizes natural lighting and texture. They’re using a high contrast stock from the ’70s that’s less sharp or defined. Film grain is being added to it.
“We’re really coming to appreciate and love the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes” says Papamichael, “and of course the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story. It’s scaling the human drama and comedy with this vast landscape. It’s a road movie but it’s also a very intimate, small personal story.”
“Well, I certainly wanted to make one feature film in my career in black and white because black and white when well-done is just so beautiful,” says Payne. “And I knew that whatever film I made in black and white couldn’t have a huge budget, so this one seemed to lend itself to that that way. Then also in reading it I wanted the austerity of the characters and of their world represented also in a fairly austere way and I thought black and white in the fall could be very nice. By that I mean ideally after the trees have lost their leaves – to just get that look.
“Sometimes where you’re in rural America there is a certain timeless quality in all those small towns which have the old buildings. You know, change comes slowly to these places.”
In terms of visual models, he says, “we’ve looked at a number of black and white films and photographs but it’s not like I’m consciously saying, ‘Oh, Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange’ (or The Last Picture Show) or something like that. No, not really. I mean, I’ve seen them. We’re just going to follow instinct in how this one should look like.”
Berger supports Payne’s aesthetic choice, though it came with a price and a fight as Paramount execs reportedly resisted the decision to forgo color. But Payne and Papamichael held firm. Berger feels the project gives Payne a new creative space to work in.
“I always was excited artistically about what he was trying to accomplish,” says Berger. “Clearly we would have gotten a lot more money if we didn’t film in black and white and life would have been a lot easier for the production. Alexander’s films have always had a very authentic look. He’s obviously a great appreciator of cinema and he has a wonderful eye and I think in a way this is his first opportunity to showcase a more iconic, archetypal look.”
Payne may just do for the northeast Sand Hills what John Ford did for Utah’s Monument Valley in capturing a certain beautiful desolation. The play of light on wind, barns, trees and wide open spaces offers evocative chiaroscuro possibilities.
“I think it’s exciting to see what he and Phedon will come up with here,” says Berger. “And it’s scope as well and so that will add yet another dimension. And digital for the first time for him and it’s going to be interesting how that helps us getting in tight spaces like cars and using low level lighting. There’s all sorts of tools at his disposal on this one that he hasn’t had before.”
Berger’s come to know Payne’s meticulous eye for finding locations and actors that ring true.
“Once the script is right and once the cast and the locations are in place I feel he’s completely ready to make the movie. I wouldn’t say the rest is easy but I think that is the critical bedrock upon which his movies are made. I think he’s a filmmaker who’s completely in-tune with what he’s trying to say both emotionally and comedically. It’s been a real pleasure to be able to watch this evolution in his work.”
“I just know in the time frame in which I was trying to get this film made these guys rose to the top of my research and struck me and John Jackson, my casting director, as being the right fit.,” Payne says of Dern and Forte.
The irascible yet playful Woody proved most difficult.
“In this case Woody’s a very, very specifically rendered character and I just couldn’t plug any actor in there,” Payne says.
He interviewed-auditioned many, including big names. For the longest time no one matched his conceptions.
“In today’s world it was kind of hard to find someone whom I believed in that part and I didn’t want it to change the character of Woody.”
He finally found his Woody in Bruce Dern, whose daughter Laura Dern starred in Payne’s Citizen Ruth and remains a close friend. What made Papa Dern (Silent Running, Coming Home, Family Plot) the perfect Woody?
“Well, he’s of the right age now and he can be both ingenuous and ornery. And he’s a cool actor. And in a contextual level I haven’t seen on the big screen a great Bruce Dern performance in a few years and I’m curious to see what he can do. He’s a helluva nice guy as well.”
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.
- Alexander Payne to film in Nebraska (nebraskapress.typepad.com)
- Feature:10 Best Road Trip Movies (thepeoplesmovies.com)
- Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach Join Alexander Payne’s NEBRASKA (collider.com)
- Author Leo Adam Biga to Sign His Alexander Payne Book at Various Events as Shooting Continues on the Filmmaker’s New Picture, ‘Nebraska’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Robert Duvall Interview (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Great American Comedy Festival Presents Lineup of Up-and-Comers with Legends Paula Poundstone, Dick Cavett, Jimmie “JJ” Walker
Nebraska and hilarity are not exactly synonomous but this nondescript fly-over state best known for its wide open horizons, abundant corn crops, tasty beef, and winning football has given the world more than its share of funny men and women. Start with silent comedian Harold Lloyd. Two of television’s best comic minds and most iconic talk show hosts, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, came from Nebraska. Comedic actresses Sandy Dennis and Swoosie Kurtz called Nebraska home. Cinema satirists par excellance Alexander Payne and Joan Micklin Silver are natives. Stand-up Skip Stephenson came from here. Comedy performer and writer Pat Hazell, too. Humorist and author Roger Welsch is a Nebraskan through and through. Author Richard Dooling and political cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba are Omaha natives known for their sharp wit. Once you know this comic progeny then the idea of a Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb. of all places no longer seems so strange, expecially when you consider it’s the hometown of the late great Johnny Carson and the festival is an annual homage to him held in, what else, the Johnny Carson Theater. Each year the festival, which is part competition, part workshop, and part roast, presents the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend Award. Up-and-coming stand-up comics from around the country compete for cash prizes. This year’s festival headliner is Paula Poundstone. The 2012 Legend recipient is Jimmie Walker, though dubbing him a legend seems like quite a stretch to me. Past Legend honoree Dick Cavett, who definitely meets that definition, is hosting a comedy magic show. It’s great having Cavett involved because of the close relationship he enjoyed with Carson. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) includes bits and pieces from recent interviews I did with Poundstone and Cavett, both of whom are very easy to talk to. I’ve done a lot of interviews with Cavett over the years and you can seen my resulting stories on this blog.
Great American Comedy Festival Presents Lineup of Up-and-Comers with Legends Paula Poundstone, Dick Cavett, Jimmie “JJ” Walker
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, workshop and roast.
Its home base is the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk Senior High, where the legendary Tonight Show host graduated. The event welcomes professional stand-ups from around the nation vying for cash prizes. Paula Poundstone is the headliner. Jimmie “JJ” Walker is the “legend” recipient. Past legend honoree Dick Cavett hosts a comedy magic show.
New this year is a June 14-15 Omaha showcase at the Holland Performing Arts Center featuring the fest’s standup contestants in 7:30 p.m. shows.
Poundstone and Cavett, long ago paid their comedy dues. They represent different generations in the craft but well identify with the vagaries of starting out.
She broke in during “the comedy renaissance” that saw clubs sprout in her native Boston and everywhere in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Open mic nights became her proving ground.
“They were just coming into being. I just lucked out in terms of time and place,” she says. “They had shows with guys who had no experience and they were awful but because there was no one else around nobody knew they were awful, and I got in on the awful train – when you could suck and it didn’t really matter. Now I think it’s a lot harder to get stage time.”
She was only 19 when she took the first of two cross-country Greyhound bus trips on an Ameripass, stopping to perform at open mics in places like Denver, living out of a backpack and catching zs on the road between gigs.
“Odd but genius. It was pretty bold. I mean, I look back on it now and think, Whoa, boy, that could have gone bad. It was my nineteeness that saved me. You think you’re invincible…That helped a lot.”
She knew she belonged as a stand-up when she got to the west coast.
“I kept getting day jobs of necessity for a while. At one point on my second Greyhound bus trip I ended up in San Francisco. It was such a great place to be. It was perfect for my age and my personality and for the type of stand-up comic I am.
The audiences were willing to allow the comic to experiment in a way I found nowhere else in the country.
“It was there I gave up my day job.”
The Other Comedy Club near the Haight Ashbury District became her favorite venue.
“A bizarrely unassuming place. I found the best audiences there. Also, the people that ran the place liked me and gave me opportunities. One of the best things I ever did was host the weekly open mic night. Your job is to introduce people but also to kind of keep the crowd, so you’ve got to do a little bit in between. I would run out of material and I got to think on my feet and interact with the crowd and do all the stuff that’s really the good stuff.
“I had some raggedy nights where it just didn’t work or the crowd was horrible. I have better odds now.”
She describes the high that is stand-up as “addictive,” adding, “otherwise why would you?” (subject yourself to it).
Meeting fans after shows holds its own high, especially when this adoptive mother of three finds she’s struck a chord with parents over one of her favorite topics – the impossibility of child-rearing. “When those moments occur it really makes me feel worthwhile,” says Poundstone, whose concerts, HBO specials, books and recurring panelist role on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me keep her busy.
Not surprisingly, Cavett admires Poundstone, who guested on one of his shows. “She may be one of four-five guests in all the years I did those shows who sent a thank-you note. It was a lovely, nice, handwritten note and it gave me a softer spot for her even than I already had. I was on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me a couple weeks ago but I was sorry she wasn’t there that day so I could thank her again.”
Now he gets the chance to tell her in person. She may share her admiration for an impromptu bit he once did with Benny Goodman. Noticing the jazz great’s fly was down and sensing a rare chance to both prevent embarrassment and score laughs, Cavett instructed Goodman “to do exactly as I do.” As Cavett stood up with his back to the audience, Goodman did the same. The gestures that followed were unmistakable and funny, yet gracefully didn’t reveal whose fly was undone.
“I can’t imagine thinking of that,” says Poundstone. “It’s brilliant, just brilliant.”
Unlike Poundstone, Cavett made his bones in the business writing for others. After graduating Yale he worked as a New York Times copy boy when he audaciously wrote a monologue on spec for Jack Paar and personally delivered it to the Tonight Show host at the RCA building. He lived the dream of seeing some of his jokes used that very night on air. He soon became a staff writer for Jack, then Johnny. On the side he did stand-up in clubs. He doesn’t exactly miss it.
“Thank God I’m not doing that anymore. Some nights were awful, some were exhilarating and made you think this is what I’ve always wanted. When you would top a heckler you’d get a big thrill out of that.”
Once he got his own ABC talk show he delivered a monologue every night.
“It’s a horrible burden for anybody doing a talk show.”
The closest he’s come to stand-up in recent years is narrating the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“I treated it as a stand-up appearance, so I did stuff I had thought up that day or had worked the night before. I ad-libbed with the audience. I had a great time doing it. But those years at the Bitter End and the Village Gate and The Gaslight and Mr Kelly’s and The Hungry Eye all helped bring that about.”
His advice to aspiring comics is “get the best material you can, work as often as you can.”
Having Carson in his corner helped him survive the stand-up gauntlet.
“I would go back to work the next day for Johnny and he would ask me how it went the night before and we would laugh particularly hard when it went badly. He would be very helpful with joke wording. He’d say, ‘You’ve got a good premise there but you don’t go far enough with it.’ A lot of good advice.”
Cavett’s still touched by the affection Carson showed him and that he reciprocated.
They’re forever linked by their small town Nebraska roots (Cavett was born in Gibbon and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln) and similar career trajectories. They both performed magic as youths.
“We met over magic in the Westminster Church in Lincoln. As kids in junior high three of us went to see the magician and radio personality Johnny Carson from Omaha.”
That each went on to host his own network talk show still amazes Cavett. “Isn’t that funny – two magicians from Nebraska?” He promises to perform “my genius” rope trick at the comedy fest. Cavett, who pens a Times column and occasional books, regularly gets back here, He hopes to get in some time in his beloved Sand Hills.
Keenly aware he’ll be on Carson’s home turf, at an event paying homage to its most famous native son, his rope trick will be one more link in their shared legacy.
For schedule and ticket info, call 402-370-8004 or visit www2.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Omaha Showcase details are at http://www.omahaperformingarts.org.