Alexander Payne: Home State Blues

Alexander Payne talks about his Oscar-nominated comedy, Nebraska, on a roundtable in Cannes, 2013

This was quite a long-gestating project. Did your relationship to the material change over the years between when you first got the script and actually came to work on it? 

Yes. I thought nine years ago that it would just make a nice modest, austere little movie, and then when I went to make it last year [2012] I had been dealing with my ageing parents, so some personal aspects found their way into the screenplay and directing.” 

Can you be more specific? 

Not that much. Just the feeling about what it is to take care of your old folks. How they drive you crazy and how you have to, you know, patronise them a little bit.” 

Did you always intend to pay tribute to Nebraska in some way? 

I'm not interested in paying tribute to anything. But I like shooting there. It's my fourth feature film I've shot in Nebraska. Usually I shoot in Omaha, the city where I am from. This is my first time really being in the rural area. So it was kind of exotic.” 

Was it clear from the beginning that you would shoot the film in colour and then convert it to black and white? 

Well you shoot in digital and it can be anything. It's not like you shoot in colour. But yes, I always saw it as black and white.” 

Does it feel very different in colour? 

“I have never seen it in colour. Well, just for a moment. But the only time we relied on colour is when we were trying to adjust the black and white. For example, you turn on the colour to see where the reds are and then you grab that and you can adjust the grey scale. Of course, in the old days, the guys doing black and white knew this colour reads this, this colour reads like that, like in costume and production design. We had to learn that to some degree.” 

Do you have any favourite black and white movies that you watched as part of your preparation? 

We tend to watch more natural black and white using natural light from the 60s, 70s, 80s more than the old studio films, which were very lit. So maybe beginning with Hud and Paper Moon, which I watch all the time any way, and Raging Bull. You know, the obvious things. Even Stranger than Paradise, just to see how much grain we would want, how much contrast we would want. So looking at a smorgasbord of looks.” 

What were you able to capture because it was black and white? 

I don't want to talk too much about the thematic application of black and white. I don't want to lead the viewer in any way. I just think it's beautiful. Sixty years ago people would've said, 'Why did you make this film in colour?' It's also just the times we live in.” 

Some people have suggested that in The Descendants you were teaching us how to be parents and in this one you're teaching us how to be sons and daughters. Would you agree with that? 

I don't teach at all. Look, I can't take away someone else's comment on the film, that's what it's there for. But I can't say that necessarily.” 

But it's a message? 

If you want to send a message call Western Union. It's hard for me to talk about messages. I always feel pretentious having to give evasive answers to questions about theme or message, but my professional duty is to avoid that discussion.” 

Okay, let's talk age. We're all getting older. Do you hope that there'll be someone like the son in the film for you when you're the Bruce Dern character's age? 

Let's hope so. Let's hope if we lead a good life there will be someone. It doesn't even have to be a relative. I had an old friend, he died 10 years ago, at 91, and I was with him the day he died. It can be anyone. But let's hope so.” 

Obviously you needed to find actors of a certain age for this. How did you go about casting the film? 

The casting was in two or three different stages. One is, of course, to be in New York or Los Angeles and Chicago and find the professional actors for the major parts. Then to come to the Mid-West, to Nebraska, not only in Omaha but in other provincial regional cities – Minneapolis, Kansas City, Des Moines – looking for non-professional local actors, but still actors. And then a third phase was looking for non-actors, real people who could play some version of themselves in the film. Many of Woody's brothers, those are actual retired farmers from Nebraska.” 

Was there a method you used to find such people? 

Usually you'd find their children to say, 'Take your camera and email us an audition,' because the parents aren't going to hear what we're doing. And then we'd get the parents in and then little by little work with them to see which ones we liked and which ones would be most confident in front of the camera with the lights and technicians and so forth. But I have been doing some version of that in all my films. I love hiring people off the street. Or off the farm.” 

Is your aim to show some version of real life as opposed to some Hollywood projection of small-town America? 

It's lovely to cast real people, real faces. Speaking pretentiously, De Sica [The Bicycle Thieves] used to say, 'Every human face tells a different story and you're telling me of three billion people, I can only use 30?' But even in Hollywood productions, you think of Wyler and The Best Years of Our Lives: the guy with the hook hands had never been in a movie before, but your find the right person. People are out there and they can do it. They have to play some version of themselves, though, you can't have them play someone else, but they have to have a natural confidence to do so in front of the camera, with pressure. And then it's my job to make them not feel pressure."

 You also seem to be trying to achieve naturalism in the situations in your films? 

I've been trying to. And as an American director working with studio money, and not just the money but the whole machine, the means of production, to achieve a certain naturalism you have to fight things. You have to fight new hair and make-up people who are on your set, because they think, 'Oh, they're getting ready to shoot. We have to comb their hair.' Even the warmth of Kodak film seeks to beautify what it films and you have to fight that.” 

That's a lot of things you're fighting. 

Yeah, like last year I saw Asghar Farhardi's A Separation and that has a naturalism that I think makes my films look like complete fakes. So I'm aspiring to have some version of that, still within an American commercial narrative vernacular. One thing, though: the style of a film doesn't really matter. It can be surrealist, Dadaist, realistic, naturalistic, kabuki, it's the sincerity with which the person is telling the story through that style that matters. You can communicate a feeling of life or truth, I think, through any style.” 

Were you ever concerned that the characters in Nebraska might become or be seen as caricatures? 

Well, I used to get accused of that in my previous films. I always look at the characters in my films and I think, 'Yeah, but I'm making a comedy.' And comedies often require - not all comedies - a certain recognition of type. People that you have seen. I have to say that some viewers are avid to point out, or want to jump to saying, 'Oh, that's caricature.' Well maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Maybe it's in the eye of the beholder. But I don't seek to caricaturise, I want something deeper. It's an interesting question.” 

Are you aware of it or is something you're wary of? 

I want the film to show respect for all the characters. However, it's up to the viewer also to have respect for the characters, too.” 

It's like you're making fun of the characters but also saying these are my family, too. 

Yeah, I'm happy to make fun of myself. You know what? I reserve the right to make fun of people. With my friends. With life. Why not? But it's how you do it. Hopefully it's entertaining and still truthful and still loving. You know?” 

Bruce Dern is great in the lead. A lot of people will have assumed his career was over. How did you come to cast him and do you think this will reboot his career? 

Well, about rescuing an actor or giving him or her a new career, that's lovely when it happens but my first concern is who's right for the film? I knew Bruce, not well, but a little bit from having worked with his daughter many years ago, on my first feature, Citizen Ruth. And eight or nine years ago when I first read the script he was the first actor who jumped to mind. Yet even now, last year, when I was getting ready to make the film, I still covered my bases and met with other actors of that same age, just so I wasn't missing any opportunity. Really perfect for the part, other than Bruce Dern, would have been Henry Fonda around the time of On Golden Pond. Walter Brennan, towards the end of his life. Warren Oates, had he lived, would have been wonderful in that part, I think. So I'm the prisoner of who's at the right age and who can do it.” 

Is the age factor a problem? 

Well, because it's a low budget film I only have a certain amount of days to make it so I need someone who still has his brain and can remember his lines. Even young actors can't remember their fucking dialogue. So I had to have a total pro who looked the part, sounded the part, that I believed in, and also with whom I could make the character's family.” 

Stacy Keach singing In the Ghetto: whose idea was it for him to sing that? 


Why that song? 

I just thought there was an absurdity to that guy in that area, that rural white guy, singing In the Ghetto. And Stacey Keach was funny, because he sings well. I said, 'I don't want you to sing very well.' He said, 'Oh, but my character really relates to that little boy. Really identifies.' I said, 'Ah, alright. Whatever you say.' He was a delight, that old pro.” 

Were you preparing Nebraska when you were a member of the jury in Cannes last year [2012]?

Yes. When I finished my jury duty I went immediately back to Omaha and started working.” 

It's funny because the film that you gave the Palme d'Or to, Amour, was about the elderly as well.

“I thought that was such a beautiful film. Boy that was a good one. I saw that film three or four more times since then and it got better with every viewing. Some people said, 'Oh, it's cold. It's Austrian,' projecting traits from his [Michael Haneke] previous films onto that film. But I didn't even see that the first time I saw it and I wasn't always a fan of his previous films. I always respected them but there's always something that kept me a little bit distant. But this one, the more I saw it, the more tender it is. And it's even more funny. It's even a funny film.” 

There's dark humour. 

Her performance, even as she goes downhill she still controls him. And he's kind of lost. He's kind of helpless as to what to do. It's a pretty good movie. And the other thing that happens, too, when you watch a movie as intense as Amour, is you watch this scene, you watch this scene, and then maybe you start thinking about lunch and you kind of space out during a couple of scenes, and then you come back. But that film rewards repeated viewing. I'm so happy, in retrospect even more, that we gave it the Palme d'Or.” 

Films with older characters are finding an audience. Do you think it gives the lie to the idea that the main audience for film is teenage boys? 

Well I never bought that. I don't believe that people only want to see themselves. You know, like if I'm 14 years old I only want to see a movie about 14 year olds. When I was 14 I only wanted to see pornography. And Westerns, cowboy films, anything. We wanted to see good movies. For a nine year old or a 10 year old – I'm going back to my generation – what's a better movie than Little Big Man? Or, when you're 14, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Bonnie and Clyde. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Sting. Those are great kids movies.” 

Do you think it's a kind of fake, self-justifying construct that Hollywood has come up with, in a way, that that is the audience? 

“Yeah, then those are the only movies that they make, which means that those are the only movies that those people get to see. It is, as you say, a snowballing effect. But as far as older people, I mean you could look back in film history, I mean they're not necessarily huge popular films, big moneymakers, but Make Way for Tomorrow, Tokyo Story, Akira, Wild Strawberries, in the 60s and 70s you find Harry and Tonto, Kotch, there have always been movies about older people. I just think people like good movies, regardless. And even if you're 85, you're still young, really. I need to be 400 before I go. Our lives, they cheated us.” 

You have Greek heritage. Family is a notion that you keep coming back to in your films and family is very strong in Greece. Do you think there is a connection? 

It had never occurred to me that this film was about family until I started making interviews about it. I mean I knew I was putting a family in the film but I thought, 'Oh, it's a road trip movie. Oh, it's that Nebraska film. Oh yeah, it's my black and white film.' And then the previous one, The Descendants, 'Oh yeah, it's that Hawaii film.' I mean I'm not like, 'Oh I'm Ozu and I always want to make family films.' I don't think that way at all.” 

Nebraska is released on DVD on April 14

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please be civil