Alexander Payne is impeccable when it comes to capturing the spirit of the area that serves as the locale for his films. With his follow-up to the Hawaiian-set tale The Descendants, Payne heads to the Midwest for Nebraska. Movie Fanatic caught up with the Oscar-nominated director and had to start by asking why he filmed his latest family drama in black and white.
“I can’t tell you exactly why. The only way I can tell you why the film should be in black and white is that you should see the film and the film will tell you why. My mother was asking me, ‘Why are you making a film in black and white?’ And my brother was saying, ‘Keep it in color so you make more money and more people see it,’” Payne said.
“Then my mother saw it at the New York Film Festival and she goes, ‘Now I understand. It would have been stupid in color.’ There’s just something about it. It’s true that as a filmmaker, as a film buff, I always wanted to make a black and white film. Black and white is king. It’s so beautiful. But somehow in this story, it came to me that it should be in black and white.”
As teased in the Nebraska trailer, the story follows Will Forte as David. He is living in Montana and his elderly father, Woody (an astounding Bruce Dern), seems to be a little lost. But, he has something to live for when he gets a letter in the mail saying he has won a million dollars. He is determined to go to the Nebraska headquarters of the sweepstakes company, even if he has to walk. David realizes it’s a scam, but his father won’t quit… so what’s a son to do except drive his father to the Midwestern state?
As in Payne’s past films, the family dynamic is explored exponentially as the relationship between father and son that was strained grows strong on the road. And when David’s mother Kate (June Squibb) and brother Ross (Rob Odenkirk) join, the film leaps to a whole new level of emotional power.
Payne’s actors are astoundingly cast, and given Payne’s short rehearsal and shooting schedule, the director says how well the film works has everything to do with casting.
“I don’t have the tradition of rehearsing very much. Also, I’ve never had the budgets to bring actors to location for their hotel and per diem much in advance of shooting. The oldest cliche is the truest: Ninety percent of directing is casting,” Payne said.
The helmer said he had to find people who embodied the part of the country from which he hailed. “We -- and by we I mean the casting director and I -- were wishing to paint very accurately a version of the part of the world where we are from. My casting director is also from that same area. We spent over a year casting, making sure that the people we were shipping in from New York and LA would be believable.”
Payne said he always had Dern in mind to play Woody, and admitted that it was simply a case of going with his gut.
“It just came to me! That’s my job to just have radio signals from outer space. The antenna doesn’t hear anything for years, but if something comes, I hear. That’s my job. It just came to me. ‘Oh he can be interesting.’ Not just because I knew his daughter -- I had worked with his daughter (Laura Dern on Citizen Ruth),” Payne said.
“Plus you meet the guy -- I cast him if nothing else for his hair. You meet him in real life, and he’s still handsome, but without too much trouble, he looks like an old prairie dog! He could be ornery and sarcastic but even if it’s crusted over, you can sense a tenderness underneath. I wanted that quality.”
And although he may seem like an unlikely choice for a dramatic role, SNL vet Forte matches Dern note for note. Payne was clearly impressed with the chops of the man who has made his living making people laugh.
“The casting director and I were meeting a bunch of people for every part. We were thinking to have a few different Davids. It came down to two or three or four. We want not just the best actor -- there’s no such thing as ‘the best actor,’” Payne said. “It’s like painting -- which shade of red do we wish to make this? But I like what Will uniquely brought to the part. And he was among my favorites and I just met him in an audition.”
Speaking of painting, Payne paints a picture in his films that firmly places his story in its locale, and Nebraska embodies that in every way. “Well, it’s a skill set – if it is a skill set,” Payne said of his unique ability.
For him, it truly began with his Reese Witherspoon-starring Election. “Trying to say this is a specific place with specific places and if you go there, it’s literally what you would see. Sideways is literal to that book, which is literal to that area,” Payne said. “I studied Anthony Mann films. His films have a tremendous sense of place. By that I mean the background is always in focus and is grand like in his Westerns but never at the expense of the intimate story, the emotional story going on in the foreground.”
He not only captured the feel of his Midwestern locale, but he specifically chose a certain time of year to further add emotional resonance. “Why did I insist on shooting in the fall with leafless trees and stubbly cornfields? It’s just more evocative. I never want to romanticize a version of things. Somehow, that’s a part of what for me is dramatic and humorous and somehow poetic.”