Director takes the long way home in 'Nebraska'

Alexander Payne revisits his roots in Nebraska for his bittersweet father-son road movie, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:52pm

It's no surprise the script for Nebraska found its way to Alexander Payne. The Midwestern state where the American filmmaker was born and raised is also where he based his first three features Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt.

But while Bruce Springsteen might have mythologised it in the title of his 1982 album, don't expect Payne to do the same. Ask him what the significance of his state is and you get a stark answer. "Nothing!" he says, grinning. "When people ask me, 'Where are you from?' and I say, 'Nebraska - have you been there?'… they say, 'Oh, I drove through Nebraska once. Boy, that's a long state. Sure is boring!'"

My parents are old now too, and I have to take care of them
Alexander Payne 

The same can't be said for his film, an elegant black-and-white father-son road movie. It tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a curmudgeonly and mildly confused soul living in Billings, Montana, with his long-suffering wife, Kate (June Squibb). When he receives a piece of junk mail proclaiming he's won US$1 million - if he collects in person - he resolves to head to his old stomping ground of Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his payout, much to the disbelief of his wife and grown-up sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Reluctantly, David agrees to drive Woody there.

Nebraska, for which Dern won the best actor award in Cannes, is a bittersweet study of familial relationships that demonstrates just how the 53-year-old Payne has matured as a filmmaker since he made 2002's About Schmidt, which similarly dealt with an irascible old fellow (played by Jack Nicholson) on a road trip. Payne says the "existential crisis" Schmidt undergoes - expressed in a series of letters he writes - is presented in a more understated way in Nebraska. "It's a little more poetic," he says, "but it's informed by the experience of making About Schmidt."

With a script by first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson, it's the first of Payne's six films for which he hasn't received a writing credit, although he worked on the script to ensure it's still flush with his own experiences. "My parents are old now too, and I have to take care of them, so there were some feelings I was able to put into the film to make it a little more personal to me," the filmmaker says.

His ethnic Greek parents, who ran a restaurant, still live in Omaha where Payne grew up before he moved away to California to study at Stanford University, where he majored in Spanish and history, and UCLA film school.

"I have a nice relationship with my father", unlike Woody and David, the director says. "He's in a home. He has most of his marbles but he's got a bum leg." It was a gift from his father, an 8mm film projector received from a client, that set Payne on his journey to becoming a filmmaker.

But did Payne and his father take road trips together, like Woody and David? "I've taken him to his college reunions. We drove from New York to Hanover, New Hampshire. He attended Dartmouth College. I took him to his 40th and 50th [reunions]. It was nice."

When it came to finding an actor to play Woody, Payne immediately thought of Bruce Dern, who rose to fame in the 1970s with films such as 1978 Vietnam veteran drama Coming Home (which won him an Oscar nomination, a feat that he repeated with Nebraska). "I met 30 other actors of that age just to make sure I was choosing correctly," says Payne. "And I came back to him."

They'd met a couple of times in the past, as Laura Dern, the actor's daughter, had been in Payne's 1996 feature debut Citizen Ruth, but they didn't know each other well.

The veteran actor decided he'd ask an old friend about what it was like to work with Payne. So he spoke to Nicholson, with whom Dern had starred in several films, including the 1972 classic, The King of Marvin Gardens. "I called Jack and said, 'What's going on with Alexander Payne? What am I going to get?'" the 77-year-old Dern says. "And he said, 'Well, you're going to get two things for sure. You'll get the best partner you've ever had as a director. And you're going to get a guy who'll go diva on you once a week.'" (Payne agrees with this assessment.)

Before the shoot, actor and director spent a couple of days just driving around together, running errands, to get to know each other better. "So I saw where [Payne's ex-wife, actress] Sandra Oh lived and a couple of other people who had been in his life," says Dern. "It built a bond for me to trust him. I knew he trusted me, because he gave me the part. But it was essential for me in this role to have a partner who could hold my hand" because playing the taciturn Woody meant he had to dial it down.

On the first day of the shoot, Payne formally introduced himself and his cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who shot the last three of Payne's films, and told Dern, "Do one thing for us. Let us do our jobs, and we will see what you're doing." Dern was amazed. "Nobody ever said that to me before. Jack, the same. We always had to embroider, we always had to enhance, we always had to do more than we needed to do or should have done. Sometimes it hurt the movie, sometimes it helped. And this - nothing. Just trust that it's there."

Aside from this naturalistic approach, one of Nebraska's most beguiling aspects is that it's in monochrome, lending the Midwest landscape an elegiac quality. "I just wanted to make a film in black and white," says Payne. "You have to do it once. You have to try everything once." But his studio, Paramount, was less than keen: many television stations will only show colour products. Payne's riposte was simple: "I said, 'That's why I'm coming to you with a cheap film. I would never come to you with an expensive black-and-white film. I'm not Spielberg - I can't make Schindler's List!'"

Indeed, in Hollywood terms, Nebraska is small fry. It's made just US$17 million at the box office in the US. And while it gained six Oscar nominations - including for best picture and best director for Payne, his third nod in this category - it went home empty-handed. Compare that to his past two films: for both the California-set Sideways (2004) and Hawaii-based The Descendants (2011), he claimed an Academy Award, along with his co-writers, for best adapted screenplay.

There's a blissfully nostalgic feel to Nebraska that recalls the adult dramas - such as 1971 film The Last Picture Show by Peter Bogdanovich - that Hollywood used to make in abundance. "It'll sound pretentious but I'm still trying to make '70s films," says Payne. "That's when I was a teenager and that's what formed my idea about what a commercial narrative American film is. I always feel it's the movies that switched; the movies changed, I didn't. I'm still trying to make those. Fortunately, I'm one of the rare ones who still can."

Nebraska opens on Thursday