At the Telluride Film Festival, before the 9AM screening of “Nebraska”, director Alexander Payne joked that his film “plays well in the morning, not exactly Bela Tarr (Hungarian director known for lengthy takes), but slow”.
Show in black and white, “Nebraska” follows Woody (Bruce Dern) who has received a form letter from a contest, announcing he’s the “winner” of a million-dollar prize. Woody is a very taciturn recovering alcoholic. Afraid to trust the mail, Woody is resolute in “claiming” his prize by travelling from his home in Montana to contest headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. Dern who received the Best Actor Award in Cannes is superb. In a subtle, often silent performance, Dern shows Woody’s combination of determination and incomprehension. Unable to drive, Woody starts walking to Lincoln, but is stopped by a policeman.
He gets no sympathy from his continually complaining wife Kate (June Squibb). Squibb, who played Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s “About Schmidt”, steals her scenes. Woody’s son David (Will Forte) decides to humor his geriatric father and, in a rather late attempt to get close to him, decides to drive Woody to Nebraska.
Payne brings quirky humor to the father-son trip. Woody once asks “Where’s my teeth?” A search ensues. David learns about his father’s past. Forte is very effective as the son who tries, often in vain, to keep things under control. The screenplay was written by Bob Nelson. Filming in black and white gives the story timelessness and emphasizes the theme of aging.
David and Woody stay with Woody’s brother and his family who live near Lincoln. They are joined there by Kate and David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Woody’s other relatives stop by for a family reunion. In some very amusing scenes, all the male relatives, sitting in the same room, quietly stare ahead without saying a word to each other. David and Woody also encounter Ed (Stacy Keach) an old friend who gives David some discomforting information about Woody. Woody’s stories on being a millionaire prize winner cause old resentments to resurface, and with them, new claims on his “winnings”.
While “Nebraska” lacks the emotional depth of Payne’s “The Descendants”, it remains a very engaging and uniformly well-acted father/son road movie. Payne skillfully mixes non-professionals with the established actors. Payne said that over half of the people appearing in “Nebraska” were non-actors.
The question and answer session after he film was one of the best I’d attended at Telluride. It was moderated by director Jason Reitman (“Up In the Air”) who was in Telluride with his latest, “Labor Day”.
Director Alexander Payne mentioned his film’s “modest budget”. He compared the “austere” script to early Jim Jarmusch. He said that he shot in black and white because he wanted “tones rather than color.”
Speaking with deep affection for his director, Bruce Dern said “this man came into my life 18 years ago through our mutual friend Laura”. Dern’s daughter Laura starred In Payne’s first feature “Citizen Ruth (1996). Dern described Payne as “unique and unto himself…approachable…has set up teammates.” Dern said that after Payne introduced him to the film’s cinematographer, he told Dern, “Let us do our jobs.”
For “Nebraska”, Dern who says he “never had lot of confidence” was interested in “not to do more.”
Dern described his acting career that began in 1958 as “55 yrs of anxiety trying to get there.” He started out with director Elia Kazan at the New York Actors Studio. He said that he was often cast as part of a group. Kazan told him to “be the most interesting fifth cowboy to the right”. Dern said he did things to stand out to be noticed, saying he was “turning in Dernsies all my life”. For “Nebraska”, he wanted to be more subtle and “relax into the part” of Woody. Of making the film with Payne, he thought “I can’t let him down”.
Dern said Payne directed him with “Don’t show, let us find it”. Dern added that he never felt as “fully trusted” as with Payne, like a “partner”. He considers Payne as “tough as Mr. Hitchcock” with whom he made “Family Plot” (1976), the director’s final film. He said Payne will “push to the edge of the cliff”, but “picks you up in his arms” with an attitude of “let’s make magic”.
Dern said he has “always wanted to go to the Super Bowl, the Playoffs [of acting], hopefully now.” With the Cannes Best Actor and all of the acclaim his performance in “Nebraska” has received, he has a great shot this year.
Payne who was born in Omaha, Nebraska said that “people I know mattered” and that in his film named after his home state, he wanted to “show people as we know”. For him, filming in “rural Nebraska is as exotic as shooting in Hawaii”, the location of his “The Descendants”.
At an outdoor panel discussion Dern said that “The ability to act stems from the courage to be publicly private.”
He told a great story that shows the difference between the collaborative mature of Alexander Payne with Alfred Hitchcock. On the first day of shooting “Family Plot”, Dern’s co-star Karen Black raised her hand and asked “Mr. Hitchcock” if she could do another take of her scene. Dern said Hitchcock “never rehearsed behavior, he always rehearsed camera moves”. Hitchcock let Black repeat the scene, but without turning on the camera.