Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ Blend of Old and New as He Brings Indiewood Back to the State and Reconnects with Tried and True Crew on His First Black and White Film
Alexander Payne is at it again. By that I mean he’s in progress on a new road picture, Nebraska, whose principal photography was accomplished October 15 through the end of November. The filmmaker will be editing the project through the spring. Here’s my second cover story about the project, this one based in part on a short visit I made to the set in November. The piece will be appearing soon in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it features material gleaned from interviews with Payne, screenwriter Robert Nelson, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and casting director John Jackson.
The writer-director is the subject of my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Excerpt of a story that originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Alexander Payne‘s decision to make Nebraska in his home state brought into sharp relief some realities with large implications for his own work and prospects for more studio films getting made here.
The state’s favorite son had not shot a single frame here since About Schmidt in 2002. With Nebraska, whose principal photography went from October 15 through November, he continued a tradition of shooting here and surrounding himself with crew whom he has a long history. Some key locals are part of his creative team, too, including one metro resident he calls “my secret weapon.”
Aesthetically and technically speaking, Payne also stretched himself by lensing for the first time in black and white, wide screen and digital. He says abandoning celluloid marks a concession to the new digital norm and to the fact today’s black and white film stock options are limited.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael says digital “allows us to work more with natural light and not have to carry a larger equipment package. We did specific black and white tests to choose the texture and quality in terms of contrast and film grain level we want for the picture. So we went into it knowing exactly where we want to be at.”
Papamichael adds, “Digital means needing less light, so we can do tighter interiors, which is important on this show because we’re entirely a location picture. We don’t have anything built. A lot of these interior spaces are very small and whatever space we can save in terms of lighting and camera equipment is helpful. Rather than having traditional bigger car rigs and following cars with camera cars we’re able to just get in the car hand-held. Also, these newer cameras allow us to do good car work without lighting. It just helps the whole natural feel we’re going for.”
At the end of the day, says Payne, digital “doesn’t matter to me because my process stays exactly the same.” His process is all about arriving at the truth. Capturing the windswept plains and fall after-harvest season figured prominently in that this time. Papamichael and Payne sought ways to juxtapose characters with the prairie, the open road and small town life milieu. In a story of taciturn people rooted to the land and whose conversations consist of terse exchanges, context and subtext are everything. Therefore, the filmmakers extracted all the metaphor and atmosphere possible from actual locations, geography and weather.
Payne doesn’t belabor the point but he received pressure from various quarters to shoot the picture elsewhere. The suits pressed going to states with serious film tax credits. Many locales could approximate Nebraska while saving producers money.
He finds himself in the awkward position of having lobbied long and hard to try and convince the governor and state legislators to support film incentives only to see his entreaties largely ignored. As much as he and his projects are embraced, his moviemaking forays in the state seem taken for granted. But the fact is he only ended up shooting here because he had the motivation and clout to do so.
If not for Nebraska there would have been no feature film activity of any significance here during 2012. Minus his Citizen Ruth, Election and Schmidt, the state has precious little feature film activity of any size to show for it. Refusing to cheat the script’s Nebraska settings, Payne brought Indiewood feature filmmaking of scale back home for the first time in a decade. Basing his production in Norfolk provided a boost to the northeast part of the state.
Norfolk director of economic development Courtney Klein-Faust says the total impact the project had on the local economy has yet to be tabulated but that just in lodging alone the production spent more than a half-million dollars accommodating its 100 cast and crew members. She says the film bought local goods and services whenever possible. She feels the experience will serve as “a case study” for elected officials to assess the trickle down effect of mid-major features and will be used by supporters of tax credits to push for more film industry friendly measures.
Like many filmmakers who develop a track record of success Payne’s cultivated around him a stock company of crew he works with from project to project. During a mid-November visit to the Nebraska set it was evident he enjoys the same easy rapport with and loyalty to crew he had before his two Oscar wins. The only time this visitor saw Payne betray even mild upset came after a principal actor was not in place when ready to roll and the filmmaker emphatically tapped his watch as if to say, “Time is money.” He expressed mild frustration when cows drifted out of frame and it took awhile for production assistants to wrangle them back in position.
Payne and some assembled crew, ©Sam Herron
On Nebraska he collaborated for the third consecutive time with Papamichael, the director of photography for The Descendants and Sideways. Their relationship entered a new dimension as they devised a black and white and widescreen visual palette to accentuate Nebraska’s stark characters and settings. That meant fixing on the right tools to capture that look.
“We did a bunch of testing and dialed in a look we’d like for our black and white because there are many different ways to go about black and white,” says Papamichael. Some of the expressive light and shadow images extracted by Papamichael and Payne recall memorable black and white treatments from cinema past, including Shadow of a Doubt, Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil and It’s a Wonderful Life.
“It’s not really a film noir look, it’s definitely a high con(trast) with natural lighting” Papamichael says. “We were very diligent in selecting our lens package, which is Panavision C Series anamorphic. That’s from the ’70s, so it has a little bit of a less defined, less sharp quality and that helps the look. We’re adding quite a bit of actual film grain to it which will feel like you’re watching a film projection. We’re even talking about possibly adding some projector flicker imposed. So we’re really going for a film look.
“And through a series of tests we’ve been able to achieve that.”
A week into filming, Papamichael was pleased by what he and Payne cultivated.
“There’s an overall excitement the whole crew has. Everybody feels we’re doing something very special and unique and the black and white has a lot to do with it. After you work with it for awhile it becomes the way you see things. In a way we’re learning the power of black and white as we go. We’re really coming to appreciate and love the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes and, of course, the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story – just scaling the human drama and comedy.
“The black and white is becoming a very powerful character in this film just in terms of setting the mood for this.”
Grizzled Bruce Dern as the gone-to-seed protagonist Woody is a walking emblem of the forlorn but enduring fields and played out towns that form the story’s backdrop. His tangle of white hair resembles shocks of frosted wheat. His drab working man clothes hang on him as if he’s a scarecrow. His gait is halting and he lists to one side. His Woody is as worn and weathered as the abandoned farmhouse of the character’s youth. But just like the artifacts of Woody’s past, this physical-emotional derelict holds on from sheer cussedness.
Papamichael says part of the fun became “discovering Bruce Dern’s great visual qualities – his face, the textures and everything that are emphasized through the black and white.”
The film’s full of Nebraskesque places and faces. There’s that farmhouse a few minutes outside Plainview. There’s the town of Plainview itself standing in for the fictional Hawthorne. There’s an American Legion hall, some bars, farm implement dealerships and mottled fields full of lowing cows. There are earnest farmers, shopkeeps, housewives and barmaids, plain as the day is long.
“Alexander is very diligent about finding the exact right spot for everything,” says Papamichael.
The original screenplay is by Bob Nelson, whose parents grew up in the very northeast environs of the state the film’s set in. He’s also impressed by how rigorous Payne is in location scouting.
“I think he’s done a great job of finding a combination of things around Norfolk,” he says. “I’ve seen the location photos and it’s pretty stunning to see it in black and white. You know it has that The Last Picture Show quality to it. It is funny to see these things that were in your mind, like the abandoned farmhouse, come to life. I don’t know how they found it, it must have been a chore, but they came up with a good one. Almost everything I saw was spot-on perfect.”
The locations are pregnant with memories and incidents, thus Payne and Papamichael chose ones most reflecting the characters and situations and they cast actors and nonactors alike who most represent these places and lifestyles.
“For him it’s not all about trying to capture something truthful and comedically grim about the American landscape but also something archetypal,” says producer Albert Berger.
YOU CAN READ THE REST IN THE NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )
Now available at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net.
For more information. visit– https://www.facebook.com/pg/AlexanderPayneExpert/about/?ref=page_internal
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