Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: The Filmmaker Speaks Candidly About ‘Nebraska,’ Casting, Screenwriting and Craft
Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon
©Compiled by Leo Adam Biga
Excerpt of Alexander Payne in conversation with Nebraska Coast Connection founder Todd Nelson
AP: “Hello, good evening, thank you for coming…”
TN: “You have a little movie coming out. A little black and white number you threw together over a weekend or two.”
AP: “No, longer than that. But it’s a small movie. That doesn’t mean it’s not dramatically resonant, but it’s a small movie.”
(Then Payne addressed how the project came to him and the background of how its screenwriter Robert Nelson came to write it.)
AP: “Nine years ago I got a script from Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the team that had produced Election. They came to me nine or 10 years ago with a script called Nebraska and it was written by a guy named Bob Nelson out of Snohomish, Wash. but his parents were from Hartington (Neb.). And it was based on his memory of his father’s and mother’s families. He used to spend his summers out there in Hartington in northeast Neb. and he wrote this script based on his memories of those summers and it really rang hilariously true. It was a very austere screenplay. Those producers said they suspected it was going to be small for me, too dinky a film.”
TN: “They thought you might know someone who…”
AP: “Yeah, ‘Do you know a young Neb. filmmaker who might want to do this?’ and I said, ‘No, I think I want to do it.’ They had wanted to make it for like $2 or $3 million, and I said, ‘How about like $10 or $12?’ I showed it not long afterwards to someone in attendance here tonight, John Jackson, my casting director, because I knew that this film would really live or die on his casting. I mean, all films do but even a couple percentage points more this one would because it’s as much anthropological as it is cinematic. And he liked it and thought he wanted to cast it. He said he felt a very personal connection to it through his family, whom he describes as dirt farmers from Iowa. That’s a bit of an exaggeration in a way with respect to the script but still it’s suggestive…
“A lot of the movie was a road trip and I was just finishing Sideways. I didn’t want to followup Sideways with another road trip film. It’s a real drag to shoot in cars and I just couldn’t do another car movie again after Sideways. Now The Descendants ended up having some stuff in cars too but anyway…the timing worked out and right after The Descendants I made it. They were nice enough to wait – the producers and the writer – and so it happened.”
TN: “It has Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Tell us about bringing them on board.”
AP: “Bruce Dern had first leapt to mind to play this part. All parts are tricky to cast in general but this one I think for John and me has been the trickiest. You know. I get praised sometimes for getting a certain controlled performance out of Jack Nicholson or that I get stars to create characters, that after 10 or 15 minutes of seeing a big star like George Clooney you can maybe, hopefully, of course it’s my aspiration, forget it’s a big star and just see the character…I never tailor a screenplay to fit the actor. I always demand the actor come to the script – even if it’s Nicholson or Clooney, who have certain strengths that most directors and screenwriters would wish to exploit.
“Naw, this is a text and it’s a part and yes you’re a star but you’re also an actor, so come to this and make it your own that way. This though I think has been the most specific lead part we’ve ever had to cast. Not anyone could play this guy Woody Grant. I looked back in film history and said, ‘Well, Henry Fonda could have played it like the way he did On Golden Pond, or Walter Brennan, or for you film buffs out there Charley Grapewin, or possibly John Carradine or possibly Warren Oates had he lived. But all those people are unavailable. After thinking about Bruce Dern, the only other guy who maybe could have done it, Gene Hackman, but I couldn’t get a meeting with Gene Hackman because he genuinely has retired. He won’t even return a phone call or a query. So it just came down to Bruce Dern.
“We did our due diligence and met 50 other guys and any one of them who could have done it would still be a stretch. Like this one could maybe do it but he has trouble learning lines or this one could maybe do it but you’d have to get him to not do this schtick or this one could maybe have done it but it would have taken more work on my part and every actor requires work anyway. Bruce required work but less work than any of those other guys would have required to get it right, so Bruce Dern’s the guy.”
TN: “Will Forte?”
AP: “Never would have thought about him in a billion years but he auditioned well. So I know often in these salons we get actors or casting people and I’m always happy to say that John and I rely on auditions, the old fashioned way. Even actors who are well known I still need them to come in and read the text, with all respect. I mean, even if it’s 10 words, say a few words, help me out, I have a pea brain, I don’t want to screw it up, and I don’t want to screw up and cast you in the wrong part and then it’s not right. We all benefit if we’re able to have a meeting. Well, what else are we going to talk about? Read the fucking script.
“And to good pros, the ones who won’t audition, but they will deign to have a meeting, the good ones will either consciously or unconsciously find the time in the meeting to say, ‘Oh, I loved the moment in your screenplay where he says…’ and he’ll do a little bit of it. That’s the courteous thing to do, that’s the polite thing to do because those actors who won’t even do that don’t get the job in my experience.
“Just about auditioning stuff I remember the actress Judy Greer, a super great old fashioned in the best way actor. She’s in The Descendants. She plays the lover’s wife. She calls herself an audition-only actress. She won’t take an offer and if there’s a meeting she insists on reading the script because she says it’s only when I read the text in front of the director do I know if I’m right for the part. So the direct line of communication between actor and director is that text. That’s just smart. What the hell else are we doing?
“June Squibb, she played the part of Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt (and she plays Bruce Dern’s wife in Nebraska)…I didn’t offer her…She didn’t occur to me, she sent in an audition. Even she had to audition. I had no idea she was going to be right for this part. It’s the Geraldine Page part or the Marjorie Main part from Ma and Pa Kettle. Basically Nebraska’s a glorified Ma and Pa Kettle film,” he said, deadpanning and elicting laughs.
(Payne discussed some more actors he’s worked with, why’s he’s particularly proud of the casting he and John Jackson did on Nebraska and how he tried to avoid certain pitfalls that come with mixing professional and nonprofessional actors on screen.)
“Tim Driscoll from Omaha, who had a small part in Citizen Ruth, came back for this one. And his sister (Delaney Driscoll) had a significant part in Election as Matthew Broderick’s lover.
“Whatever achievements this film Nebraska may or may not have for me it’s greatest achievement is its most significant marriage of professional and nonprofessional actors because to create that world it’s dependent equally on production design and casting. That’s what suggests that world is that flesh. We spent over a year doing it. The start date is here, the visual preproduction is here, the casting has to start here. You can’t fuck up casting, you’ve got to get the right people in every part and of course the leads and the secondary, tertiary parts have to be exactly right. It’s creating a world.
“I looked at a number of small town American films for this one. One of them in particular is an excellent film and it has professional actors but also people cast from that small town. But there’s a great chasm between the acting styles of the two. It’s like the faces of the real people lend what they’re supposed to lend which is authenticity, versmisilitude and all that but they’re not acting properly, even as versions of themselves. So I knew we had to spend time to get local people who could act as vividly as possible as versions of themselves but also to have the professional actors act flatter. They both had to meet in between. I like when professional actors act more flatly like people do in real life. People don’t gesticulate, go into histrionics in real life, not Midwesterners anyway.”
(Nelson and Payne then made a few comments before screening the trailer for Nebraska.)
TN: “It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. A wild success I can witness – I was there. I saw a 15 minute standing ovation at the end of the film.”
AP: “Yeah, I’ve seen turkeys get a standing ovation at Cannes. It played better at Telluride.”
(Then, referring to the trailer, Payne said)-
AP: “This is a work in progress print.”
(After the screening someone in the audience commented about the Spanish sounding music, which prompted Payne to describe it as a)-
AP: “More Mexican sounding trumpet piece.”
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- When a Film Becomes a Film: The Shaping of Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Author Leo Adam Biga Joined Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Featuring Alexander Payne to Promote His Book About the Filmmaker, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Bruce Dern Sets Out On A Long Trip In This Brand New Trailer For Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013) (durnmoosemovies.wordpress.com)
- Hell Yes! First Trailer for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (blackiswhiteblog.wordpress.com)
- ‘Nebraska’ directed by Alexander Payne | Official Film Trailer (soundcolourvibration.com)
- Paramount Moves ‘Terminator,’ Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ (thewrap.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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