“I believe in movies,” Alexander Payne emphatically states during our interview at the Savannah Film Festival over the weekend. The director was not only on hand to present “Nebraska,” which served as the opening film of the festival, but also to receive the Outstanding Achievement in Cinema award, presented by the movie’s star, Bruce Dern. And Payne’s passion for film is clearly present in his approach for his latest effort. The road trip story about a stubborn, determined father (Dern) and his put-upon son (played by Will Forte) journeying to claim a sweepstakes prize, is presented in black and white, and shot in widescreen—certainly not the usual elements one expects these days in a movie that blends drama, comedy and Payne’s always focused eye on the textures of the Midwest.
However, as Payne shared, during his pre-production process on “Nebraska,” he was already thinking of a big visual canvas to present the story, screening films with an eye on their photography and use of natural light. Ranging from “Sweet Smell Of Success” to “Hud” to “Manhattan” to “Paper Moon,” Payne’s diverse choices all shared a common thread of being wonderfully lensed. But it wasn’t just the opportunity to embrace visuals in a new manner that attracted Payne to take on the script by Bob Nelson.
“This script was suggesting a movie I had never seen before,” Payne explained. “I wanted once to make classical films, but also movies I have not seen before. So I had never seen ‘Nebraska’ before and I didn’t know exactly what it would be, and if you don’t know how they should be, that’s how films become then sui generis, they become their own things.”
Helping “Nebraska” achieve that feeling came through in the casting, with Payne utilizing a strong handful of non-actors in supporting roles, coming from the same Midwest setting the film takes place in. But leading them all is an actor who takes the role of a lifetime and runs with. “Mr. Bruce Dern is the actor who’s name first lept to mind when I read the script nine year ago,” Payne said. And Dern lives and breathes Woody Grant, a married man and father whose mind is slowly slipping into old age, finding layers of sensitivity in a man who ultimately wants to do one last thing right in a life that has been filled by wrongs. It’s great piece of acting, but one that finds him playing against an actor not known for his dramatic work.
As his son, “Saturday Night Live” veteran Will Forte puts away all of his comedic tools and exposes a gentleness we haven’t see from the actor before. “I believed him,” Payne said of his decision to go with Forte. “He has a goodness that just comes out in real life and in film, and I found him very relatable.”
And the skill by the leading duo, and the aspiration to authenticity, makes “Nebraska” stand uniquely apart from the rest of the fall and awards season films, and not just aesthetically. It’s a complex character piece, a portrait told against a backdrop from a part of the country that doesn’t go on view often enough at the multiplex. There is no star-studded ensemble or topical subject matter and it’s told unhurriedly, yet directly. That being said, the film also marks the lowest budget Payne has worked with since “Election.” And the director acknowledges that while his success had made it a bit easier to pull the resources together for his films, the sandbox that pictures like “Nebraska” exist within, is getting smaller.
“The trouble is that there aren’t more literate, intelligent comedies and dramas being made over $25 or $30 million dollars. They all now have terribly shrink-wrapped budgets, so there’s not much in between the very small films and the very big ones,” Payne reflects. And he points to David O. Russell’s forthcoming “American Hustle” as the type of movie the studios should return to the business of making more often.
“I told a studio executive the other day, where’s ‘Out Of Africa’ today? Where’s ‘The English Patient’ today? Where’s ‘All The President’s Men’? Those literate, human, interesting stories that take a little money to get it right,” he continues. And moreover, Payne rejects the notion that audiences may not be interested in those kinds of movies. “I totally believe if you build it, they will come.”