If you’re wondering why it took Alexander Payne nine years after reading the script for his new film to make it, the answer is a bit less exciting than you were hoping for.
“I was just finishing ‘Sideways,’ and that’s a road movie, two guys in a car. And this movie is two guys in a car. And I didn’t want to make two road trip movies right in a row”
So us fans, we bided our time and waited patiently for this movie about “two guys in a car.” But with Alexander Payne, director of films such as Election, Sideways, and most recently The Descendants, it’s obvious that when he claims he made a movie about “two guys in a car,” it’s about much more than that. At the surface, the film chronicles a son’s journey to Nebraska accompanying his elderly father to collect a “supposed” cash prize and the events that ensue as they make the trip.
A director with strong authorial intent that is visible throughout his catalog, Payne recognizes that Nebraska could be viewed as his most ambitious film to date with two notable decisions impacting perceptions of the film: Payne’s decision to shoot in black and white and the unusual casting choices made for the principal roles in the film. Payne envisioned shooting the film in monochrome, stating, “the very austere nature of the screenplay to me suggested a visual style in black and white.”
In fact, Alexander Payne is kind of frustrated that you don’t know how great shooting in black and white can be these days. “It’s a beautiful form and I don’t think you’re seeing – younger people who haven’t seen black and white movies don’t know that our great film heritage is largely in black and white. The other thing is it might be a format which is so old that it’s actually new again and kind of exciting.”
With a cast from very diverse professional backgrounds, Alexander Payne made some casting choices that could be considered abnormal for a mostly dramatic film, with the actors playing the two principal characters, Will Forte and Bruce Dern, being well known for their work on “Saturday Night Live” and older Westerns respectively. When asked about it, Payne replies bluntly in the way that one would expect him to.
“You mean the fact that you have Bruce Dern, who’s an old seasoned professional, together with Will Forte, who comes from “Saturday Night Live,” and then together with people who have never been in a movie before, just hired off the farm in Nebraska? You mean like that?”
He breaks down his casts into three distinct categories.
“One group is the highly seasoned professionals. The other is non-professional actors, maybe people from Community Theater and commercials. And then another, the third group, is non-actors. That is to say, people who have never acted in their lives before, but who bring a certain level of reality to a movie.”
This level of reality is necessary in Nebraska, a film grounded by the landscapes of many small towns in Northeastern Nebraska. Payne, being a native to Omaha, often incorporates use of his home state as a setting for his films and is irked when people question him about it. “You never ask Woody Allen why he likes to shoot in New York or Paul Thomas Anderson why he wants to shoot in L.A. You just accept that. Why do you have to pester me about why I like to shoot in Nebraska? I’m from there… And somehow where you’re from has an amazing gravitational pull over your life.”
When asked what he would liked to be remembered as “the master of,” Payne gave a quintessentially questioning answer that could’ve come out of one of his films. “I don’t know, man. Honestly I can come up with sarcastic answers…but that wouldn’t be for me to say. What do you think I should say?”
So what should he say? See Nebraska and decide for yourself.