Interview with Bruce Dern and Alexander Payne for NEBRASKA

We catch up with the director and star of new movie NEBRASKA…

This month, Bruce Dern makes a glorious return to playing a leading man in Alexander Payne’s NEBRASKA. The film focuses on Woody (Dern), an aging man who travels across America, with his estranged son, to claim a million dollar prize. Movies Plus Magazine (M+) caught up with Alexander Payne and his leading man earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, to find out more about NEBRASKA, a moving, personal film, interestingly shot in black and white.

Alexander, why did you decide to film NEBRASKA in black and white?
Alexander Payne: I wasn’t expecting that question at all! [laughs] It just seemed to be the right thing to do for this film. It’s just the way I read it and saw it. true, I have always wanted to make a film in black and white – it’s just a beautiful form – and it left our cinema because of commercial, not artistic reasons; it never left fine art photography. This modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white. The visual style is perhaps as austere as the lives of the people in the film. How’s that for an answer!? [laughs]

Were there any repercussions from deciding to make the movie in black and white?
AP: It took some discussions with the studio to get them to allow me to make it in black and white, at a budget with which I could make a decent film. Filmmaking in America is very expensive, at times more expensive than I think it should be, because I think it can limit opportunities. We did settle on a budget less than it would have been if the film were in colour, but it was still at a rate that I felt comfortable I could make a decent film. They all said ‘we want to spend as little as possible, but we still want you to have the tools to make a decent film’. We found that breaking point and it worked out great.

Alexander, you are from Nebraska, did this influence the film or the title?
AP: If I weren’t from Nebraska, I wouldn’t have made this film at all, because I’m sure the script never would have come to me. I’m not sure, but probably… If it were called Iowa, maybe it would have come to me, I don’t know. [laughs] I feel very lucky that the screenwriter had that Nebraska connection and found me. I’m from Omaha, which is much bigger than the rural areas you see in the film, so I was very curious and anxious to have the experience of being in rural Nebraska. It was kind of exotic to me.

Bruce, what was it like to work with Alexander Payne?
BD: There comes a point in your career, I have worked for some really wonderful directors. I have always said that in my career I have worked for, now, six geniuses; Mr Kazan who I started with, Mr Hitchcock, Douglas Trumbull – a lot people don’t know why I include him, well he’s a genius, trust me – Francis Coppola, Quentin Tarantino and now Alexander Payne. What you need is assurance, to take risks and at the beginning of my career, when I began with Mr Kazan, he was all about risk taking and Mr Payne is all about risk taking. You have to put your faith that you have a guide. An interesting thing happened during the course of this movie. I never had much of a relationship with my own father, but at the end of this movie I found my father, and that’s him. When I got that trust that I could do that, and dare to fail because he’d be with me… The difference with all the others – the others are gifted, and I am leaving out a lot of people – the difference in what Alexander does, is the others all pushed you to the edge and made those risky choices, and they have a butterfly net to catch you in and throw you back up. This man goes down to where you are, picks you up in his arms, brings you back to the edge and says ‘Let’s make magic’, and that’s the difference.

Bruce, it’s great to have you back as a leading man, how long has it been since you took on a leading role?
BD: You mean a lead in a film that ever was witnessed by human beings in a theatre? [laughs] I would say about 25 years. I guess I was a lead in Last Man Standing, but when you work with Bruce Willis you always feel you are supporting somehow. He’s a wonderful guy, incidentally. Probably a quarter of a century or so, and that was one of the delights I had; I am 75 years old… 76 I think. And I was delighted, I was thrilled. I am a runner in real life, I have been all my life, I still run and I have always been about the understanding that movies, and show business in general, is a marathon. In the marathon, nobody starts to think about racing, until we’ve all done about 16 miles. I was at about the 24th mile when I heard from Mr Payne. When I got this opportunity, and realised that his vision and my vision could be the same if I would behave myself and not do too many Dern-sies, and I relished that, and he strove for that. Two things I never did in this movie, which I have done in every movie I have ever done; there is not one word of dialogue I say that isn’t in the script, and there are no Dern-sies unless they were encouraged. I was a delight. My god, after all this time, somebody saying ‘Bruce come on down’, well I was ready.

Will Forte said this kind of film was out of his wheelhouse, what made you decide to cast him?
AP: I never would have thought of him in a million years, but he auditioned well. He communicates a ready sincerity and sweetness and also damage that I thought would be good for the character.
BD: Jack Nicholson is probably the best partner I ever had in a movie, but this man is right on his shoulder, because this man’s support that he gave to me, for all those weeks and knowing that he was feeling in a strange ground… If could hook him and Laura up I would be perfect for life [laughs] because at the end of the movie I felt I had a son!

There is a bittersweet humour in all your movies, but this one is also melancholic. Do you have a melancholic view of the modern family?
AP: A film is made in the time in which it is made. I received this beautiful screenplay nine years ago and what appealed to me was a look at once humorous and melancholic. I like that, it’s the style I like, its kind of like life. I also liked that the screenwriter, Bob Nelson, had lived this film, so there was something very personal. He was writing about personal experience. I could pretentiously say that it’s a depression era film, which also answers, in a way, the black and white question. I’m just the director, it’s hard for me to talk about what it means.

Alexander, you were working on a sci-fi film some years ago, is that still going ahead?
AP: The reason there was a long gap between Sideways and The Descendants was that Jim Taylor, my co-writer, and I were working on a sci-fi satire screenplay, that took much more work than we had reckoned. I will get back to that script, possibly at some point in the near future.

Words: Brogen Hayes