Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’
Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. The essay sets up or introduces the multiple stories I wrote about his most recent film Nebraska. My extensive Nebraska coverage will add a major chunk of material to my Payne book and to our understanding of him and his work. The new edition will be out in June 2014.
Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Excerpt from an essay to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.
Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.
Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty-second trailer or hearing a fifteen-second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.
Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held. much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.
To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.
I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.
Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he says that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end, but I have to believe those “sacrifices” were completely worth it in the long run. I would even argue that having to work on a bare bones budget and a tight schedule worked in favor of getting this simple story right. It required cast and crew to live frugally like the characters and the frugal shoot placed a premium on efficiency, ingenuity, and everyone pulling together to make the most of what they had to work with. In truth this esprit de corps is evident on all of Payne’s projects anyway because of the tight, loyal stock company he works with from film to film to film. They are a family and a team dedicated to one purpose: getting the film made to his specifications.
I asked Payne if it ever seems like a studio plays this game in order to gauge just how strongly the filmmaker is invested in a choice or preference as well as to what extent the filmmaker can be manipulated. He seems to believe there is some truth in that. Perhaps it really is the studio’s way of testing how firm the filmmaker’s convictions are and how much the filmmaker is willing to give up or to stand fast in terms of creative control. As Paramount surely knew going in and if they somehow didn’t know they surely soon discovered in the process of setting up the film, Payne is no push over and he brooks no fools. That is true at every juncture in the process, from making the deal to pre-production to the shoot and on through post-production. It is his film and he will not be budged from any creative choices he feels are necessary, which is to say he will not be pressured into doing something for the sake of added commercial appeal.
Because Payne is not about burning bridges, except for his public displeasure over the way his first two films (Citizen Ruth and Election) were handled by the studios and releasing companies behind them, he is not saying on the record what he thinks about the way Paramount handled Nebraska. I have to think he is not pleased with the extremely limited release they gave it. At no time during its release did the film ever play more than 968 theaters according to the website Boxoffice Mojo. That is anywhere from two-thirds to a half to a third the number of theaters its main awards competitors played at during their runs. It is hard to understand why the film was not given more opportunities to find a wider audience given the outstanding reception it received from critics (making most Top Ten lists), the foreign press (five Golden Globe nominations) and the Academy (six nominations).
Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in more than $18 million domestically by this edition’s summer 2014 printing and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $20 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $25 million in business, which would approximately double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.
Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically with Nebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidt just as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger-than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.
That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet him he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.
This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.
When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a $i million sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.
For Nebraska I Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and-vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.
As you will read in the articles that follow Payne is most proud of the casting and locations in Nebraska. These are elements he always takes great care with in any of his films but with this particular film he went the extra mile yet in order to realize the very specific world of the story. Many of the small speaking parts are filled by regular folks – retired farmers and such – who populate the very towns or ones just like them where he shot. He and casting director John Jackson searched long and hard for just the right faces and voices. Similarly, the weatherbeaten, seen-better-times found locations look and feel so right as the homes and pit-stops of the characters that these real locations rather than constructed sets add another layer of verisimilitude.
The choice to populate the film with zero star power ultimately is not the reason the film failed to pull in more of an audience because there are plenty of films that do well with little known, non A-list names, and nonactor finds. No, the real problem with how Nebraska fared had more to do with the perception the marketing campaign for the film imposed on it. The film’s trailers did not communicate the heart and soul of the picture. None of the warmth or depth or populist appeal at its core registered in those clips. Instead, the film was represented as a cold, mean, depressive, rather flimsy sketch concept blown up to fill two hours. Anyone who has seen and appreciated Nebraska will tell you it is far more than that. It is a work replete with deep currents of regret, disappointment, melancholia, rage, nostalgia. and love. Alongside that run streams of humor, sweetness, irony, and slapstick. Then there is the sheer poetic evocation of hauntingly beautiful visuals that turn the wide open flyover terrain, roadside stops, and played-out small towns of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska into haunting fields of dreams and symbols of neglect. Not to mention centers of quirky, silly, sometimes surreal goings-on.
Plenty of small indie films about similarly unglamorous subject matter have struck a responsive chord with the masses. So what kept Nebraska from resonating the way, say, Juno did or Little Miss Sunshine? No one really knows. If the creatives who make the films and the suits who finance and sell them did, if there was some sure-fire magic formula at their disposal, then every film would be packaged into a box office winner. The truth is some films catch the wave and most don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable rhyme or reason for why some hit and others miss that elusive, always moving wave everyone is after.
It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.
The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.
Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.
Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.
Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with a sense of confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact, at least for this short interval of time.
What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders might have been. As he heads out of town Woody says a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.
Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet an uncertain future together. Consistent with the way Payne ends all his films, Woody’s last ride reverie does not promise any great turnaround in his life. His problems are still his problems. The fact that that sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.
NOTE: To read the rest you’ll have to wait for my new edition to come out.
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
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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