LARRY GROSS: Why did you decide to shoot Nebraska in black and white?
ALEXANDER PAYNE: I don’t want to answer that question. Or if I do I would just say it felt like the right thing to do.
Just give me one sentence…
I could give you a pretentious auteur answer and say, “Don’t you see? It’s a Depression-era film!” [laughing] Or I have the joke answer: “The studio made me do it.”
I love that one. Speak a little bit on the choice of Bruce Dern to play Woody. I read you initially went after Hackman.
Bruce Dern was the first guy I ever thought of for the part, but before casting it I felt I should do due diligence and meet all the appropriate actors of that age, including, of course, Gene Hackman, but he will not emerge from retirement.
It struck me as counterintuitive to cast Dern. One of his greatest comic skills as an actor is to be infatuated with the sound of his own voice. In King of Marvin Gardens, he cannot stop talking. And yet Woody barely speaks.
I never thought of it. I know he’s talkative in real life. (laughs)
June Squibb died off after two scenes in About Schmidt. Did you plan to come back to her?
No. Even though I had worked with her on About Schmidt, I cast her because she auditioned very well. Then I said, “Of course, June Squibb!” Really, it’s a part for Marjorie Main, from the Ma and Pa Kettle films. Nebraska’s just a glorified Ma and Pa Kettle film.
Was it always in your mind to cast nonprofessionals?
A lot of the cast in all of my films are nonprofessionals. Given the milieu of this film, rural Nebraska, you can’t get people to play those parts. You have to get the real McCoy.
When you’re working on the script do you foresee which are going to be which?
To some degree. We prefer to cast locally. For The Descendants, and for his film in particular, casting can take over a year. The biggest achievement of this film, if it has any achievements at all, is the casting—locating bulletproof, authentic nonprofessionals. We seek as little discrepancy as possible between the performance of professionals and nonprofessionals. They’re all part of the exact same film.
I loved the old married couple that the lead characters steal the processor from.
The characters’ names are George and Gene Westendorf, and in real life they are Neal and Eula Freudenberg. He’s a retired farmer from central Nebraska; I can’t remember the name of the town. Yeah, that’s the real McCoy.
Lincoln. Nebraska’s a very real place on the map, but the majority of the movie takes place in Hawthorne, Nebraska, which is your invention. Could you talk a little bit about the symbolism of Hawthorne and Lincoln?
There’s no symbolism at all.
Is Hawthorne a real place?
No, no, it’s a fictional place.
I’m talking about the naming of Hawthorne and Lincoln. To me it’s very resonant. Lincoln is all about hope and belief in America, and Hawthorne is all about guilt and the pain of the past. To me, that’s the movie.
I had never thought of that! Who’d ever think of that? That’s fantastic. Can I steal that? That’s wonderful.
It seems to me you have an affinity to Preston Sturges. Is that true?
There’s one side character who comes up to Woody on the street and says, “Hey, Woody, remember me? Bernie Bowen, how ya doin’? Jeez, everybody’s saying how you’re a millionaire. Ah, jeez, there’s a guy living the life of Riley, a million here, a million there. Well, the newspaper’s gonna write a big story about you.” He reminded me of someone from Sturges or Capra.
These secondary characters do such a wonderful job of suggesting the shadows and shades of color inside the central characters.
Thanks for saying that. I think it’s true. You fill out the lead character, and I’m also interested in portraying this setting, portraying the milieu. I’ve added comic sour cream on top, but I’m still trying to be accurate about it. Antonioni used to say, and it’s certainly true, that one of the keys to this type of filmmaking is to lavish attention on secondary and tertiary characters. Make sure that everyone who appears on screen, certainly anyone with any dialogue, suggests a whole person and a whole life.
Larry Gross is a screenwriter and critic whose credits include 48 Hours, Streets of Fire and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, for which he won a Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
NEBRASKA | U.S., 2013, 110m | Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte