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NYFF: Alexander Payne, Bruce Dern & Will Forte Talk The Particular Tone Of ‘Nebraska’

The Playlist By Edward Davis | The Playlist October 9, 2013 at 4:06PM

An alcoholic father suffering from the early onsets of dementia gets a sweepstakes notice that he’s won a million dollars. It’s a scam obviously, but the elderly man is determined to see it through, despite his wife and older son’s protests to the contrary. What’s the youngest son to do? Perhaps trying to relate and bond on a level they’ve never connected before, as he agrees to drive his father from Montana to Nebraska to track down the prize, but many detours await, including a protracted pit stop in his dad’s hometown.
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Nebraska, Dern Payne, Forte, set image
“I didn't want to throw any ‘Dernsies’ in it or anything" -- Bruce Dern

Why was the film shot in black and white?
Payne had two answers, one an intuitive gut one and another more reference-specific. “It just felt right. From the moment I picked up the screenplay I always saw the movie in black-and-white,” he said. “I always wanted to make a movie in black-and-white and I knew it would have to be [done] relatively inexpensively. “ How does it help the storytelling? “It's just so darn beautiful,” he said. “Every day I would look at my [director of photography Phedon Papamichael] and say, 'How can we go back to color?' It was also my Cinemascope movie, too. And boy was that a true treat.”

Payne said the other element that helped shape mood and tone was the austere screenplay itself that was only 90 pages. “It suggested to me early Jim Jarmusch,” Payne said of the tone. “I was thinking a little bit about [Japanese filmmaker] Shohei Imamura, ‘The Insect Woman’ and ‘The Pornographers.’ The look, with action staged for camera with as little cutting as possible. I wanted it to be shot in as austere a fashion as the landscape suggested – subtly flashy in an understated way. I wanted to be elegant but minimalistic.”

Bruce Dern always has a good Elia Kazan anecdote to share. He also suggested Alexander Payne reined him in and didn’t let him get away with “Dernsies” – the Jack Nicholson term for patented Bruce Dern improvisations.
“I began a while ago with Mr. Kazan. I came into the business because I was astounded to work with him and Mr. Strasberg. This is what I got into the business to do,” Dern began. “And I haven't been able to do it that much in 55 years.”

“I didn't want to throw any ‘Dernsies’ in it or anything. Payne said: ‘Let us do our jobs.’ He backed it up ten minutes later by saying, ‘Don't show us anything, let us find it.’ That's the magic of what he does. Has it been done before? Yes. But you look at [June] coming out of the shop and him having it [linger] on that shot. Let the picture work. [Legendary cinematographer ] Haskell Wexler said that it was like watching a moving version of an Ansel Adams scrapbook.”

Nebraska

Dern always has a good Bob Rafelson story too.
“Curly Bob is a wonderful filmmaker,” Dern said of the producer/director Bob Rafelson who directed the bizzaro Monkees-starring trip “Head,”5 Easy Pieces” and was an instrumental part of the maverick BBS Productions gang of the 1960s. He also directed Dern and Jack Nicholson in the movie, “The King of Marvin Gardens” which also famously switched types – Nicholson playing the meeker character and Dern playing the more boisterous one.

“He had a wonderful cinematographer named Laszlo Kovacs who wanted it to be overcast every day. So we'd wait and we'd wait and that was good,” Dern laughed. The differences between the two directors? “Alexander is approachable and patient. Curly is approachable and not quite as patient.” He said.

Derns shared an amusing story about a scene on ‘Marvin Gardens’ where Rafelson was unsatisfied with his two lead actors. On take 12, an exasperated Nicholson and Dern turned to their filmmaker and asked what he wanted exactly? “He ripped his sleeve off and said ‘I want goosebumps!’” Dern remembered. By take 17, Rafelson finally got what he wanted. "That's a print let's go to the other room," Dern recalled the filmmaker saying. “Jack said, ‘Make him roll his sleeve up!’ " The actor also said that Rafelson claimed that scene – as great as he wanted it – meant $15 million at the box-office opening weekend. “Alexander doesn’t think that way,” he said.

“Nebraksa” opens on November 15th. -- Reporting by Drew Taylor

This article is related to: Nebraska, Alexander Payne, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Features, Feature, Interview, Interviews, New York Film Festival


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