Watching your parents grow older and contend with not only physical illnesses, but also emotional trauma and a crisis of identity, can be challenging for young adults, as they struggle to create and maintain their own lives. Finding a sense of humanity and humor to the serious subject of how to best contend with aging family members who can no longer care for themselves, is the driving message in director Alexander Payne’s new adventure drama, ‘Nebraska.’ The mix of confusion and clarity and disgruntlement and hope throughout the examination of the main parent-child relationship in the film, as the two struggle to redefine what they mean to each other, is the main relatable driving force in the drama.
‘Nebraska’ tells the story of the Grant family of Hawthorne, Nebraska, who are now living in Billings, Montana. Stubborn patriarch Woody (Bruce Dern) is well past his prime, but feels he has one last shot at redemption when he receives a letter that he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes. To claim his fortune, his son, David (Will Forte), reluctantly agrees to accompany his father on the 750-mile journey from their home to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the sweepstakes offices are located. Though David insists to his father that the letter is a scam, he agrees to drive him on the futile trip, in an effort to give his father one last piece of hope.
Along the way, the two decide to stop in Hawthorne to visit Woody’s family, where he quickly spreads the word that he’s a new millionaire. When David’s mother, Kate (June Squibb), and younger brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), join them in Nebraska for a family reunion, Woody’s news makes him a local hero, at least momentarily. But their family and old friends soon close in on Woody’s supposed winnings, bringing to life past mistakes no one could have imagined.
Forte, Dern, Squibb and Payne generously took the time recently to participate in a press conference following the Press and Industry screening of ‘Nebraka’ during the 51st New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Among other things, the actors and director discussed how the filmmaker put the cast at ease while they were working on the set, and how he creates a genuine acting environment on the set; how Dern was stunned when Payne sent him the script for the adventure drama, as no one has ever thought of him on that level as an actor; and how they thought the script, which was penned by Bob Nelson, was beautifully written, as they felt the complexities of the relationships were clear, and the Grant family was very relatable.
Question (Q): For the cast, how were you able to connect with your characters?
Will Forte (WF): I’m from California, but I have roots in Kansas. It was a beautiful script and I felt this connection to the character. But I didn’t think I had any chance to play it, so I was happily mistaken.
Q: What was the process of working with Alexander Payne?
WF: It was okay. (laughs) I was intimidate coming into the process, because it was so different for me, but he put me at ease instantly. Bruce was the same way. Everyone was very nurturing and patient. It was an awesome experience that I never thought I would have in my lifetime.
Bruce Dern (BD): I think not only after this movie, but after also ‘Citizen Ruth,’ there’s not an actor alive that doesn’t want to work with Alexander Payne. He gives you opportunities to be in movies, and he just wants people to watch. Those are the kind of movies to make.
Alexander is a privilege to work for and to work with. He’s a guy who insists that you work with him, and he is so approachable, and so natural, and so insistent on reality. He surrounds you with two or three non-actors who are so damn honest, you can’t possibly start acting in front of these people. That’s the magic.
WF: I don’t like being referred to as a non-actor. (laughs)
Q: Bruce, what was the process of becoming Woody?
BD: That was exciting. Alexander sent me the script six months after he saw the script, and I was stunned because nobody has ever thought of me at that level. I saw this script and then the next day, I went to Toys R Us and sat on a little truck that Will’s character buys him. I said, “I think I can be Woody.” Nine years went by and here we are.
Q: Why did you decide to make the film in black and white, and how did that aid in the storytelling?
Alexander Payne (AP): It just felt right. I owe it to the moment that I picked up the screenplay. I always saw the movie in black and white. I always wanted to make a movie in black and white, and I knew it would have to be a relatively inexpensive movie, because it’s relatively hard to get movies made through the studio system. This one felt right. It’s just so darn beautiful. Every time the DP (Director of Photography, Phedon Papamichael) and I looked at each other, we said, “How can we ever go back to color?”
Q: What was the process of capturing the warmth and crankiness of the Grant family on screen?
WF: The script was so beautifully written. It seemed to be all on the page. The complexities of the relationships seemed to be clear. Even though my family is nothing like this family in this movi,e it just seemed like it was very relatable.
BD: When I got the script for Nebraska, I said, “This is what I came into the business to do.” I’m not able to do that very often in my 55 years in the business. The first day Alexander introduced himself and Phedon, he said, “I wonder if you might do something for us on this film that I’m not sure you have done for a whole film before.” I asked, “What’s that?” He said, “Let us do our jobs.’ He backed it up ten minutes later by saying, “Don’t show us anything. Just let us find it.” It’s like watching a moving scrapbook of Ansel Adams’ photographs.
Q: What’s the process of aging on screen in Hollywood?
June Squibb (JS): It’s a wonderful thing. I recognize that I am lucky in terms of being able to have this role. It’s not that I don’t respect aging because I do, but I also feel that we sometimes set laws. I think those are all meant to be broken. None of that really means anything. I work all the time. This is a joyous role and a great role. I never think much about my age, or my choices, or chances.
To see segments from the ‘Nebraska’ press conference, watch the clip on YouTube.