Alexander Payne is no stranger to the award circuit, and his latest film Nebraska is sure to make a number of top ten lists of the year, and could win awards for its stellar cast. But that’s no surprise as it comes from the two-time Oscar winner. We got a chance to sit down with Payne, and he proved an intelligent and thoughtful filmmaker. Check it out:
Your cast has a lovely, sometimes dysfunctional rapport. How do you go about creating that? Do you have lots of rehearsals or is it spontaneous?
Alexander Payne: It’s somewhere in between. I don’t have the tradition of rehearsing very much and most movies don’t. Some directors really rehearse the hell out of things but I don’t come from that background necessarily. Also, I’ve never had the budgets to bring actors to location for their hotel and per diem much in advance of shooting. But the good thing in movies is you only have about two pages a day to do. They only have to get it some version of right once in every set up and we edit it. I think casting — it’s hard to say really, a really obvious answer but casting, casting, casting. The oldest cliché is the truest: Ninety percent of directing is casting. For this one where we — and by we I mean the casting director and I — were wishing to paint very accurately a version of the part of the world where we are from. My casting director is also from that same area. We spent over a year casting, making sure that the people we were shipping in from New York and LA would be believable there and also making sure that the locals we were hiring, either nonprofessional actors like people from community theater and then non-actors, maybe over a third, maybe half of the actors in this film are right off the street or off the farm, making sure that they would be believable to deliver reliably once the cameras were rolling, a vivid version of themselves. And my job as a director is to make sure they’re all in the same movie. I pay myself few compliments but on this particular film, I’m proud of the fact that the non-actors and the seasoned professionals are all in the same movie, that they don’t stick out. In any given scene, there’s a big mix of people off the street and highly seasoned professionals and I hope you can’t really tell.
Working with black and white, it sort of creates a different sense of time, did you think of removing any modern signifiers?
Alexander Payne: It doesn’t have to necessarily but it can lend a period air to a contemporary film. Frances Ha doesn’t. Manhattan doesn’t necessarily. Maybe Jim Jarmusch’s early film does to some degree. No, we didn’t think about that too much, maybe it’s just because where we were shooting. I was in Cannes and an Israeli journalist said, “Oh, your film, it’s like all those people have been kicked out of time. They’ve been kicked out of history. They live outside of history.” And I’m not sure what I think of that observation but it stuck with me.
When you wrote the script, did you instantly think this should be a black and white film?
Alexander Payne: I can’t tell you exactly why. The only way I can tell you why the film should be in black and white is that you should see the film and the film will tell you why. I mean, my mother was asking me, “Why are making a film in black and white?” And my brother was saying, “Keep it in color so you make more money and more people see it.” Then my mother saw it at the New York Film Festival and she goes, “Now I understand. It would have been stupid in color, this one.” There’s just something about it. It’s true that as a filmmaker, as a film buff, I always wanted to make a black and white film. Black and white is king. It’s so beautiful. But somehow in this story, it came to me that it should be in black and white and that I knew it would be cheap enough. I couldn’t do it with an expensive movie in America. But with a cheap one, I thought I could do it. So it all worked out. But I wish I could give you a more substantive answer about why black and white, but just because.
There’s something about CinemaScope, black and white too. Because black and white was coming to an end just as CinemaScope was coming in, those movies that were in CinemaScope and black and white, it’s just like, “Ahhh…”
Alexander Payne: That’s one of the reasons we love late Kurosawa films from ’57 to ’65, black and white scope, unbelievable. All those Japanese films, late ‘50s, early ‘60s, black and white scope. Then they started to disappear. Hud is maybe the last great one.
Was Hud an influence?
Alexander Payne: Hud’s a little bit more lit. James Wong Howe’s work from Sweet Smell of Success, through Hud – we looked at. Mr. Howe was doing great work. Hud’s a little more lit than we were looking for. I mean, it’s devastatingly beautiful but it’s still kind of more of a studio picture.
I was wondering, this film was rated R for language – there’s two “F” words and…
Alexander Payne: A c—sucker which you can barley hear. I appealed it. I went to the MPAA. I said, ‘Really?! Really?! I know your rules but this movie is like an Andy Griffith show. The rest of the world is going to laugh at you.’ You can’t make everybody happy. But it says on there, ‘For some language.’ The MPAA said, ‘Well, we specify why. There’s no sexuality or violence – just some language.’ ‘So why don’t you put PG-13 for some language?’ ‘No,no,no. We can’t do that.’ And then of course you have these arguments like, ‘Eat Pray Love has two ‘f—s’ and that got a PG-13 on appeal,’ and they go, ‘Yeah and we heard about it.’ They got complaints about that one.
You had Bruce in mind on this for a number of years from what I understand and yet, it’s not the kind of role Bruce made his bones doing. What did you see in him early on when you say, ‘he’s gonna be the right guy for this guy?’
Alexander Payne: It just came to me! That’s my job. ‘Oh he can be interesting.’ Not just because I knew his daughter – I had worked with his daughter. Plus you meet the guy – I cast him if nothing else for his hair. You meet him in real life, and he’s still handsome, but without too much trouble, he looks like an old prairie dog. So for his looks and just that he has that quality of being… Because I knew him personally a little bit, not well, through his daughter I had met him. That he could be ornery and sarcastic but even if it’s crusted over, you can sense a tenderness underneath. I wanted that quality.
Was it also like that with Will?
Alexander Payne: No. With great respect to Will, there were, depending on…The casting director and I were meeting a bunch of people for every part. But Woody was the hardest part finally to make the decision on so we were thinking to have a couple, a few different Davids. It came down to two or three or four. But depending on whom we would finally cast is Woody. So if I had cast someone who looked very different from how Mr. Dern looks, I might have gone a different direction. We want not just the best actor – there’s no such thing as ‘the best actor.’ It’s like painting – which shade of red do we wish to make this? Yeah, there were two or three others. But I like what Will uniquely brought to the part. And he was among those my favorite and I just met him in an audition.
And June Squibb?
Alexander Payne: That lady was also a hard part to cast. It didn’t even occur to me for June to do it. I was looking at auditions and I thought, ‘What if we ask June Squibb to audition?’ So I didn’t just call her up and say, ‘Would you please audition? I want to see what you might do with it.’ And I loved what she did. I said, ‘Oh. June Squibb.’
Alexander Payne: She’s great. And I’m so glad to have discovered someone so late in his or her career at least for movies. She’s been active in theater for many years but I’m glad she’s having this discovery. And the lady in the film who plays the ex-girlfriend in the newspaper office. That’s somebody who’s been languishing in student films – in short films. She hasn’t been… you haven’t seen her before. I’ve never seen her before but her resume is short. Like Loyola Marymount undergraduate student films as a granny or something. But she’s wonderful.
That last shot of her with Bruce driving by…
Alexander Payne: Bruce Dern says that hers is the most honest performance in the film. That’s interesting to observe.
In your films, you’ve really delivered a sense of place that isn’t always easy to communicate. This one was a place you knew from your own personal history. How was that different from the ones you’ve done before? How were your own feelings about the Midwest as you started?
Alexander Payne: Well, it’s a skill set – if it is a skill set. I actually think it is – training one’s eye in a skill set of trying to get place. You don’t see it so much in Citizen Ruth but it begins with Election. Trying to say this is a specific place with specific places and if you go there, it’s literally what you would see. Sideways is literal to that book, which is literal to that area. Even my little Paris short for Paris, Jet’Aime, you really see the 14th Arrondissement in it even though there’s other intimate stories in the foreground. And also I studied Anthony Mann films. His films have a tremendous sense of place. By that I mean the background is always in focus and is grand like in his westerns but never in the expense of the intimate story, the emotional story going on in the foreground. You can take that one step higher, which I had never done, but he did, which is to have the landscape and the background reflective of – visually – the shifting of the emotional landscape of the protagonist.
So you must love The Naked Spur.
Alexander Payne: It’s one of my favorite films, plus Robert Ryan. Robert Ryan’s on TCM all today. My prayer for today is not that my premiere goes well, but that my DVR doesn’t run out of space.
How did you connect that technique that you developed to your feelings about that place? And did you feelings about the Midwest change with the film?
Alexander Payne: Now you’re getting into the truly instinctive area that’s hard to comment on other than that it’s there. Part of it is feeling about the place, the other is finding a delightful humor in the melancholy. One thing is to say, “Why black and white? Why Cinemascope?” But, also, why did I insist on shooting in the fall with leafless trees and stubbly cornfields. It’s just more evocative. I never want to romanticize a version of things. Often, in American film you have to fight that. The mere act of photographic it can be romanticizing it. Like, how often we accuse violence movies. They say, “Actually it’s an anti-violent film.” Yeah, but somehow the fact that you see it as romanticizing it and films in color and the warmth of color Kodak stock, you have to light things differently to make it feel colder. Somehow, that’s a part of what for me is dramatic and humorous and somehow poetic.
Do you have a favorite scene in this film?
Alexander Payne: I like the laughs that the stealing compressor part gets. I like the scene where they visit the house where Woody grew up – the abandoned farm house. We spent a lot of time finding that location and also, when I watch the film now, I like when there’s no talking. I like the silences of the film.
Nebraska is currently in limited release. It will expand shortly.