Screenwriter Bob Nelson Talks About What’s Personal and What’s Payne in NEBRASKA

Interviews
by Meredith Alloway
December 20, 2013 2:54 PM
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Since Premiering at Cannes this year, Nebraska has become an indie darling. The hype around Alexander Payne’s new feature was buzzing long before its release: Bruce Dern makes his comeback! First time screenwriter Bob Nelson makes his debut! Nelson has now been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and Golden Globe.

Nelson, who worked in TV for years in Seattle on shows like Almost: Live! brings us an impressive, intimate first feature script. After winning a sweepstakes prize for a million dollars, Woody Grant (Dern) is set on claiming his prize. His son David (Will Forte) decides to take him on a trip to obtain the cash, despite the fact that it's clearly a scam. The film is a raw, poignant look at a crumbling patriarch and his compassionate son. Although the story may seem melancholy, the movie finds levity in its humor. (After all, this is a Payne film.)

I spoke briefly with Nelson about this film at the red carpet premiere of Nebraska at the AFI Film Festival:

Meredith Alloway: This is your first feature. How did you get it in the hands of Payne?  

Bob Nelson: I was working at a Seattle show called The Eyes of Nye. Producer Julie Thompson came up. I had written a screenplay to try and get a TV job. Julie got the script to Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who have a company called Bona Fide Productions.  They decided to send it to Alexander [Payne], not with the intention to direct it but just to produce it and raise money. I was very fortunate, very lucky, and it doesn’t happen a lot. The one take-away is that even though I was in Seattle, I was still working in the business.

MA: Nebraska was optioned back in 2003. What were some elements that Payne infused into your original draft, over the years?

BN: He’s got a little bit spread throughout the script. Right off the top, he did some work on the first act. In my version, David worked in a cubicle and Ross [his brother played by Bob Odenkirk] was an insurance salesman. He changed their professions, giving a 40 year old a job where there didn’t seem to be many advancement possibilities. He created this tension between the brothers, which is nice. When they have the moment later on with the air compressor, it kind of completes their story. Mount Rushmore was his idea. He said, ‘You know they’re going pretty close to Mount Rushmore. Why don’t you have them stop there?’ Those lines that they’re saying in that scene are pretty much Alexander.

MA: I can’t imagine anyone else playing Woody. Are there particular moments where you witnessed Dern make the Woody you wrote his own? 

BN: It’s pretty much the whole thing—that’s even better. As much as you can do in your mind when you’re writing, nothing compares to having an actor fill it out and make it real. This is pretty special. I was on the set for a week and I got to see a little bit of that. I got in the video truck and watched. Boy, when I saw the whole thing put together I was amazed. One of the first scenes I saw him doing was when he walks into the tavern and sees Ed Pegram [played by Stacy Keach] with the letter. I knew he was Woody.

MA: Which character are you the most like? I often feel the writer's voice speaking through David. Was he your vehicle? 

BN: The script did start with my own father, my relationship with my dad. I could have imagined my dad doing this, as he was more confused. He might want to make a trip like that. How would you deal with it? I honestly used some real life instances that are in the movie. David brought up those old thoughts of, what do you do with this person you love that had this addiction? You’re trying to do the right thing by them and give them dignity and show some forgiveness. My dad was shot down in WWII and was quite a changed person. He was a generous guy who loaned tools out and never got them back.  The scene at the railroad tracks was from real life. I used those and at a certain point I started inventing things based on that. It did help in the beginning to mine from real life.

MA: My favorite scene in the movie is when all the men in the family sit in the living room, drink beer and stare at the TV. The dialogue is so terse that it’s hilarious. How did this scene evolve from your initial idea to what we saw on screen?

BN: Well that’s Alexander’s staging. In my mind, I was remembering from my childhood that they wouldn’t necessarily watch TV all the time; they would sit in a circle but still not talk. Alexander came up with the idea of them staring forward. If they have something to say, they say it. There’s no awkwardness.

MA: You wrote for years on Almost Live! What resources did you use to make the transition and tackle a feature?

BN: In fact, I started out and got to page 20 and realized I should educate myself. I read some screenplays. Some of them would be Casablanca or North by Northwest, but they helped me to get a feel for the film. I read some books, but I prefer reading books about people talking about the screenwriting process.

MA: What are your feelings on the charges that the film is condescending? 

BN: Yeah that’s a tough one to talk about. I come from a comedy background, and I always wanted to do drama and mix the two, and that’s what Alexander does. Basically if I’m going to write something, since we’re both humorous at heart, I think every project we do is going to have some gentle humor about the participants. It’s personal, in a way, because these are people I love. I don’t think of them as any less smart than we are. I also don’t want to paint them as “salt of the earth.” The guys staring at the TV, they had dry senses of humor. I loved those guys. But I can't change people's perceptions. We’re all a little silly. I could do a scene about some hipsters in New York watching television and make fun of them talking all the time. That would be the New York version.

MA: Any filmmakers or artists from this year’s crop of films you find inspiring?

BN: I grew up with Billy Wilder. I love The Apartment. Any screenwriter starting out should watch The Apartment for structure. I grew up on 70s films. Hal Ashby also combines drama and humor. I also had a fondness for Horton Foote; you can see that in Nebraska. These days I love the Coen brothers. Albert Brooks was a big influence. Christopher Guest—there’s a guy who’s accused of being condescending! We love his films!

MA: What’s up next for you?

BN: One of my friends is Joel McHale; I’ve written a script for Joel that I’m directing. We’re out trying to raise the money now. My last goal in life is to turn Joel McHale into a movie star!

MA: You’ll be directing this one as well?

BN: That’s what I’m telling people! I have to find someone to believe it that has money! I just wrote another script that’s even smaller than Nebraska. It’s inspired by Bicycle Thieves. It’s another dramedy.

Bob Nelson was born on July 18, 1956 in Yankton, South Dakota, USA. He is a writer and actor, known for Nebraska (2013), The Eyes of Nye (2005), and The Magic Hour (1998).

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview showm "All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing for film and stage.

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