Heartland and soul: Alexander Payne guides poignant father-son road trip in ‘Nebraska’

Even by industry standards, Nebraska has had a long gestation period. Alexander Payne agreed to direct Bob Nelson's screenplay as early as 2004, but didn't want to follow his Oscar-winning Sideways with another road movie. After completing The Descendants, another Oscar winner, Payne returned to the project.

Nebraska is hard to pigeonhole. Labels like road movie, comedy, slice-of-life drama don't really convey what happens in the story. It evokes a time in the 1970s when Hollywood made movies about genuine people who faced believable problems. Unfortunately, for many studio executives that time has passed.

The director decided early on to shoot Nebraska in black-and-white and CinemaScope, choices that made financing that much more difficult. "Movies just love black-and-white," Payne enthuses, "but usually it's used to suggest 'period.' I think this is the first studio-released contemporary black-and-white film since Manhattan 34 years ago."

More so than many of his peers, Payne pays attention to all aspects of moviemaking. In their production design, cinematography, editing and music, they have a precision missing from most contemporary releases. His frames are carefully composed, his incidental music makes sense, his locations advance the narrative, and his editing is so fluid that at times it seems invisible.

And yet for all of his technical prowess, it's Payne's work with actors that has drawn attention. Performers as varied as Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church received Oscar nominations for their roles in Payne's movies. If there's any justice in Hollywood, Bruce Dern, the star of Nebraska, will get a nomination as well. (He already won Best Actor at this year's Cannes Film Festival.)

"There's not an actor alive who doesn't want to work with Alexander," Dern states during a question-and-answer session after a recent screening. "He sent me the script six months or so after he saw it. I was stunned, because nobody ever really thought of me at that level. This is what I got into the business to do, and I haven't been able to do it very often in 55 years."

In Nebraska, Dern plays Woody Grant, a retired mechanic who believes he's won a million-dollar contest. His son David (Will Forte) reluctantly accompanies him on a trip from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up the award.

Dern joined a cast that includes Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk. "You hear actors say a lot of times: Well, I like to work with this one, I like to work with that one," Dern continues. "But Alexander's a guy who insists that you work with him. The first day he said, 'I wonder if you might do something for us that I'm not sure you've done for a whole film before.' And I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'Let us do our jobs.'"

Payne, ordinarily articulate and opinionated, is reticent when it comes to talking about his work. Unless questions are extremely specific, "It just felt right" might be his response. But in a series of phone calls, he goes over some of the background to the production.

"If you're going to ask me about process in working with actors, by far the most important part is casting," he starts out one evening. "Making sure you've got the right people so I don't have to say much on the set if I don't have to. And when casting non-actors, you have to find people who are able to reliably give a version, a vivid version, of themselves unselfconsciously when the camera's running."

The director keeps rehearsals brief. "It's not theatre where we're preparing for the entire shebang," he explains. "We only do two or three pages a day. Rehearsing the scene at the beginning of the day and then carving from take to take, you can usually get the job done."

Getting the actors familiar with their locations is key. "If a man lives in a house, he shouldn't be visiting that house on the first day of shooting," Payne reasons. "He should have already been there, so he has some sense of familiarity and ownership."

For June Squibb, who plays Dern's wife Kate, the locations became a part of the story as well as a way to explain her character. "We shot a cemetery scene early on," she says, "and I remember looking out at this land. I mean there's nothing there." That view gave her a better understanding of her role.

"The challenge to me was to do what was in the script," Dern continues. "Not fudge, not throw any 'Dernsies' in there or anything. Alexander said to me, 'Don't show us anything, let us find it.'"

But Payne downplays his influence over actors. "When they use words like 'brave performance' or 'taking risks,' I don't really know what that means. I just think you should be acting the part as well as you can. If inside they think, 'Oh, I'm doing something I'm not sure about,' well, I do that every moment that I live."

For Payne, one of the crucial elements to filmmaking is keeping a relaxed atmosphere on the set. "There are no mistakes," he says. "That's why God gave us takes two and three."

Nelson's screenplay for Nebraska was compact—"minimalistic" as Payne puts it. "I wanted it to be shot in as austere a fashion as the screenplay suggested, and then that the landscape and the people in that part of Nebraska also suggested. I was thinking of Shohei Imamura, his Insect Woman or The Pornographers, that black-and-white ’Scope with action staged for camera, with as little cutting as possible. He had a very clinical way of looking at people, and he liked to use locations instead of soundstages. He liked limitations, how sets tell you how they want to be shot."

Nebraska is the first time Payne has photographed a feature using digital cameras instead of film. "My job is always the same," he says about working in a new format. "Who are the actors? What's the story? Where do they stand? What's the camera angle, what's the lens?”
Payne and his crew drove the exact route from Billings to Lincoln that Woody and David take in the story. Along the way they grabbed some of the stunning landscape images used during the movie's montages: train locomotives, agricultural equipment, motorcyclists pulling around David's Subaru.

"That was one of the most expensive single shots in the whole film," Payne laughs. "You know you drive through South Dakota, and you see motorcyclists all over the place. I thought we'll just contact some local motorcycle group and put them in the picture. Well, noooo, Paramount says you have to fly in stunt men, rent motorcycles, and have the stunt men dress up like bikers. I had to contact the head of the studio and say, 'This is $50,000 I don't have in the budget.'"

Payne got the extra money. Phedon Papamichael, his cinematographer, took the shot with the camera mounted on Payne's Winnebago—"the Winnebago that Jack Nicholson drives in About Schmidt." The shot lasts only seconds, but it adds an extra level of reality to Woody's journey. "It just kind of goes by, you may not really notice it, but if you look closely the camera's in the center line of the interstate as the bikers are going around. You know it took some doing. Half a day."

The director brings that same intense focus to all aspects of the production. Background music heard briefly in bars takes months to decide. But the case of Mark Orton's score was more a happy accident. Payne had planned to work with another composer, but his longtime editor Kevin Tent and music editor Richard Ford suggested using music by Orton's group, Tin Hat Trio, as a temporary track.

"The music worked so well that over time, we looked at one another and said, 'Why don't we make this temp music perm?'" Payne remembers. "The one thing I knew I wanted was that you feel the personality of the players. It shouldn't just be orchestral or studio musicians. I knew it had to feel handmade somehow, and I think Mark's music does."

Payne hedges when asked how he conveys tone and atmosphere in his movies. "Life surrounds us. Life is dramatic and funny at the same time, and I want that same complexity in my films. It's hard to say how. I just, you know, follow my nose."

The deadpan humor in some moments of Nebraska has roots in silent comedy. As a child, Payne collected 8mm slapstick shorts. When David and his brother Ross (played by Odenkirk) steal a compressor from a barn, Payne keeps the camera focused on their parents sitting in a compact car. Just like a Laurel and Hardy routine, their reactions are what make the material funny.

And to top off the scene, Payne added digital effects of the car rocking when a door slams shut. In fact, the director has embraced digital effects. "You can use them now to help a performance," he says. "For composite shots, for example, where maybe you take the back of an actor from one take and the front of an actor from a different take. We can mix up takes now, lightly speed up or slow down a performance, remove pauses. What we used to have to do optically with a jump cut and hope it worked, now we do it digitally and seamlessly."

Still, Payne is an ardent film lover. He is on the board of The Film Foundation, and this year he guest-curated four features in the Museum of Modern Art's “To Save and Project” film-preservation festival. "Film is not just film, it's our heritage, our culture, a window into the past," he argues. "We have to preserve it, not just for film buffs but for our world heritage."

Some writers have accused Payne of being too cruel or ironic about his subjects. "I can't control how others read a text," he counters. "I know what's in my heart."

Dern takes a different angle. To him, Payne "is so insistent on reality, on being honest. Every scene or so he surrounds you with two or three non-actors who are so goddam honest you can't possibly start acting or performing in front of them."

The actor says that cinematographer Haskell Wexler compared Nebraska to a moving scrapbook of Ansel Adams photographs. Dern singles out a scene with Angela McEwan, who plays a newspaper editor. "When you look at the shot of Angela McEwan at the end coming out of that store—his courage to hang in there with that shot until it says what it should say—that's the magic of what he does."