Alexander Payne: “There’s always humor to be mined in blindness”

The "Nebraska" director on the Midwest, actors without makeup, and why he loves characters who delude themselves

Topics: Alexander Payne, Nebraska, Movies, midwest, Sideways, Hollywood, Bruce Dern, Will Forte,

Alexander Payne: "There’s always humor to be mined in blindness"Alexander Payne on the set of "Nebraska" (Credit: Merie W. Wallace)

I don’t believe it’s hyperbolic to say that speaking with writer/director Alexander Payne about, of all films, “Nebraska,” is a dream interview. I was born in Payne’s hometown of Omaha, and moved away at age 13. It’s the place I spent my wonder years, and I still have many relatives who never left, some who live in places you’ve probably never visited, or even driven through, with names like Tecumseh and Elkhorn. If you enter a bar, you can be sure there’s a poster or cutout of the obese Cornhusker mascot Herbie Husker posted somewhere, and talk will generally cycle between sports, cars, neighborhood gossip and hunting. Drinking is custom, not vice. This is not a critique of values, education or intelligence. It’s just the way that I know life in Nebraska. And Payne knows it too.

In “Nebraska,” his first film since the award-winning “The Descendants,” Payne strips bare the story of an aged patriarch (Bruce Dern) on a quixotic journey to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes payday. Along for the ride are sons Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, and the hilarious Jane Squibb as Dern’s profane, long-suffering wife.  Mildly derided as “minor Payne” at the Cannes premiere, the film, like “About Schmidt,” may have relatively small stakes in a global sense, but for its characters, they are huge. Payne and I spoke over the phone recently about his casting process, his characters’ Midwestern stoicism, and shooting in black-and-white.

Nebraska” is a film you wanted to make for almost a decade. What was it about the script that resonated so strongly? 

It’s funny you mention that, because I wasn’t making it for no other reason than I didn’t want to follow one road trip movie with another. Every couple of years, I would dare to read the script again, praying that I had not outgrown it and didn’t want to make it any longer. Mercifully, my interest in it remained. I like in it now what I liked in it nine years ago when I first read it. I liked that it was short and the script was under 100 pages. I liked that the dialogue was funny and deadpan. I liked that it had some sadness in it. What this kid is trying to do for his dad is kind of melancholy, with this trip into the past. I just thought it would make a nice little movie.

With any of your films, how do you know “This is a story I need to tell”?



Every once in a while I need to, but it’s more that I want to. I’m so interested in the act of directing that I just like making movies. Of course, I have to make a movie that I feel connected to on some level, so that I can feel it. I have to feel what’s going on in the movie to be able to direct it halfway decently. My movies aren’t necessarily always considered comedies, but rather funny-dramas, except for “Election” or “Citizen Ruth,” which were pretty out-and out-comedies.

The theme of quiet desperation exists everywhere, but there’s a certain Midwestern stoicism that seems to fascinate you. What draws you back to these characters?

That’s a good one. I hate to cop out, but that’s maybe something more for you to observe than for me to really comment on. I hate to be repetitive, but I guess I am! (Laughs.) I don’t want to say, “I like to do this type of movie,” because I don’t want to box myself into a corner with what I might want to do in the future. Who the hell knows? I’m hoping that with six movies this is just a tiny core sampling of what my output will be. I’m not the fastest director in the West. All I know is, my co-writer Jim Taylor and I, because it kind of starts with him as well, we just somehow find a comic archetype in the protagonist who is experiencing a discrepancy between what he aspires to and who he is and what his real tools are. There’s always humor to be mined in blindness. That’s why we’ve gotten some mileage out of the unreliable narrator in our first films. There’s just something about that guy you’ve described that has become a comic archetype.

Ego and Hollywood beauty seem to uniformly be stripped away in your films. What are your first meetings like with actors? 

You mean how do I get them to not want to preen and be pretty?

Is there vanity that needs to be stripped away?

I remember when I was doing “Sideways” and I wanted to cast Virginia Madsen, who is babealicious. Before casting her I had to have a drink with her so we met at the Chateau Marmont, that fancy place. I said, “Look, I really want to cast you.” And she said, “Great, because I really want to be in the movie.” I said, “Great, but one thing is: I don’t want you to wear makeup. I don’t want any glamour-puss stuff with this character.” She looked at me and her face relaxed. She smiled and said, “Really? You mean finally the movie where I don’t have to wear makeup?” It’s like that. People by now know the aesthetic I’m after, which is a vividly photographed banality. Again, I don’t want to box myself in, but with these films to date, they’re financed by studios. They’re American, commercial films, but they should have the patina of the real world, not of movies. Even when Jim Taylor and I write screenplays, our guide to what should happen next is always, “What would happen in the real world?” Not “What would happen in a movie.” It’s the same thing in the production design and the casting. “How would this really be?” That’s why all my movies are shot on location and not on sets. I don’t build anything. In “Nebraska,” there are many locations where nothing is touched. It’s exactly how it is when you find it. Even the abandoned farmhouse, where Bruce Dern’s character grew up, is exactly as we found it.

June Squibb steals scenes from two very funny guys Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk.  Were you immediately confident that she could nail those really bawdy punch lines? 

Yes. I was immediately confident when I saw her audition. That character has the most flashily written part, so I needed an actress who would really be able to go to town with that dialogue.

Black-and-white serves as a beautiful backdrop to what is essentially a dying Midwest. Was it difficult to view your home state in this blighted light? 

Over time, not just in Nebraska but everywhere, younger people leave small towns, and the small towns begin to be populated more by their older citizens. At the economic times we’ve been living in recently, and especially for this film, black-and-white acquires a kind of Depression-era feel. That aspect had not existed when the screenplay first reached me nine years ago. But the fact that it was in the air when we turned the camera on in 2012 added, I feel, a very interesting comment. Not just on small town Nebraska or small town America, but on the state of the country in general. It’s not a devastating critique in the film by any means. It’s a gentler film than that, but I’m glad it’s there. Even lightly.

What’s a perfect day for Alexander Payne?

Wow. A nice, juicy hike in the morning. A couple hours of writing. A couple hours of reading. A nice nap, and good food.

Drew Fortune is a Los Angeles freelance writer. He's a regular contributor to A.V. Club, Interview Magazine, and his work has appeared in Spin, Paste, and many other publications. Tweet him @drewster187.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...