Alexander Payne is one of those filmmakers, like Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, whose name alone conjures forth the kind of movie you're about to see. In the case of Payne, it's usually a slice-of-life film that combines elements of comedy and drama, in a winning concoction that can only be described as Payne-esque.
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Payne's newest movie is "Nebraska," the beautifully shot (in black-and-white, no less!) tale of an elderly man (Bruce Dern) who travels to Nebraska to collect his phony sweepstakes winnings, along with his more-than-tolerant son, played by Will Forte. Featuring typically excellent performances (some from non-actors) and a kind of bittersweet, ramshackle charm, it's a movie that chokes you up and makes you giggle, often at the same time.
Speaking with Payne is a similar experience: he isn't buttressed by the usual Hollywood ego and self-aggrandizing. The closest he comes to boasting is when, during our conversation, he says that he thinks he's pretty good at casting his movies (um, yeah). We also got him to talk about what the protracted development process for "Nebraska" was like, whether or not Bruce Dern was his first choice, if we'll ever see his science-fiction movie "Downsizing," and what exactly happened with "Jurassic Park III."
Moviefone: You've been trying to get this made for almost 10 years. Why did it happen now, and what changed between then and now?
Alexander Payne: Well, it's wrong to say I've been trying to get it made for ten years. I had it on the back burner. I read it while I was cutting "Sideways" and I didn't want to make another road movie right after "Sideways," because that was a road movie. I didn't know it was going to take so long to get "The Descendants" made. So I knew once I finally got "The Descendents" made, I would make "Nebraska" right away. It was kind of deliberate.
Was the appeal also going from your biggest, most colorful, most movie star-heavy movie to something that was tiny and black-and-white and full of character actors?
I had forgotten that. I never think in advance what the size... They're all kind of small, in a way. But I do get frustrated sometimes with the giant machine of filmmaking, even on the modest levels I operate in. And I thought having this quite austere film, in black-and-white, back in the Midwest, and it was my first time shooting in my beloved home state of Nebraska since "About Schmidt," I did think that would be nice. It's nice to have a smaller crew.
Why Bruce Dern?
I certainly have liked him my whole life. We obviously saw him more in movies in the '70s and '80s than we have since, and I knew him socially a bit through his daughter, Laura, who was in my first film. And, for some reason, when I read the script back in 2004, he was the first actor who leapt to mind. Of course, years later, when it finally came time to make the film, I met with other actors who are his age, before circling back around to him. He's a wonderful oddball. And who wouldn't want to see a great performance out of the guy?
Was there ever any doubt he could pull this off?
I doubt every actor I cast and I have complete faith in every actor I cast. You never know until you get them on set, do ya? But I am pretty good at casting. I don't toot my own horn at my filmmaking abilities but between my casting director and myself, I think we're pretty good at casting. And we just had a good feeling about the guy.
Just as interesting as Bruce Dern is the fact that you have Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in major dramatic roles. Where did that come from? Were you a secret "MacGruber" fan?
I've never seen "MacGruber." He just auditioned well. I never would have thought of Will Forte ever. But I just believed him. You saw the movie: you see him and he's just there. And you believe him. He feels as though he's someone you recognize, like you went to high school with him.
"Nebraska" seems like something of a dream project. Are there any other dream projects that you think will get off the ground? Is "Downsizing" finally happening?
Thanks for your interest in that. I will make "Downsizing" sometime in the next two or three films.
Before I let you go, I have to ask you about something I've been dying to know about: your involvement in "Jurassic Park III."
What did you contribute? What made it onto the screen?
What happened was... That was for Universal, about a dozen years ago. Jim Taylor and I, after "Election," got a job rewriting "Meet the Parents." So we did, un-credited, the last draft of "Meet the Parents." Even Jay Roach talks publicly about it. So we did such a good job for them that the next Universal picture that they were in a little bit of trouble with right before shooting was "Jurassic Park III." The trouble with a script like "Jurassic Park III" isn't the dinosaurs, it's the people; so they brought us in to do character work and basically revamp the whole script while utilizing the already built sets, five weeks before shooting. So we gave them a whole new draft. We worked for a month on it right before shooting. But we revamped the whole script such that we got screen credit on it. That's a writer's guild adjudication.
Is what you wrote the movie that's there?
Well, they took out all our jokes except for, early in it, they're on a plane and they've kidnapped William H. Macy or something. And there's a whole bunch of tough guys and William H. Macy says, "Well, how do you guys all know each other?" And one of the killers says, "Through our church." That's one of our jokes. As an exercise, it was fun to write dialogue like, "Come on you guys, let's get out of here! We haven't got much time!" Just as an exercise.
"Nebraska" is in select theaters now.