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A “Nebraska” State of Mind – Panel Presentation

GP Production

Producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa thought they had a fun, festival showcase piece on their hands after reading the script for “Nebraska.”  They approached director Alexander Payne thinking the perhaps Payne would want to jump on board as an executive producer who could mentor an up-and-coming director.

“We thought we found a million dollar indie film and we were planning to present it that way,” said Yerxa.  Added Berger, “Yes, it was Bob Nelson’s first screenplay.  We had been looking for something else to do with Alexander, but we didn’t think this would be it.  After he read the script, he really surprised us when he said ‘I have an idea about a director.  I want to direct.’”

Yerxa and Berger were members of a panel moderated by Deadline’s Pete Hammond that explored the making of “Nebraska.”  Joining the panel were the film’s stars Bruce Dern, June Squib, Will Forte, cinematographer Phedon Papmichael, editor Kevin Tent, and director Alexander Payne.  Hammond kicked off the panel by asking Payne why the film was shot in black and white.  Payne lobbied the question back at Hammond.

“You’ve seen the film, why do you think I made it this way?” asked Payne.  “You’re a film critic and an observer of films, why would you say I did it?”

After briefly joking that the Midwest takes on a grander hue with the stark black and white, Hammond felt the look of the film bore a resemblance to classics including “The Last Picture Show.”  Payne admitted after first reading the script he determined it would be shot in black and white.  He also knew from the beginning that actor Bruce Dern would make a fine Woody.  The script had been presented to him while he was shooting “Sideways,” and although Payne committed to directing the feature, he didn’t want to shoot two road movies back to back.

At that time neither the producers not Payne would foresee the nine year period that would lapse between the release of “Sideways” and “The Descendants.”  Throughout that time, Payne’s enthusiasm for “Nebraska” didn’t waver.  He’d occasional scout locations for the film, finding the perfect bars and roadside stops that would be pieced together to compose Woody’s (Bruce Dern) hometown.  While the time lapse wasn’t intentional, Payne felt it was a benefit for the actor.

“Yeah, because of how Bruce looks, adding more age on him was good for the character,” said Payne.

Dern was delighted to accept the part.   “They don’t even write roles like this for bad actors,” joked Dern. “It was a chance of a lifetime.  In my early days, this would have been like being chosen for a movie by George Stevens or Elia Kazan.”

Dern was most taken with the director’s approach on set.  He remembered a direction Payne gave during the first days of shooting, “Don’t show us anything, let us find it.”  He also appreciated that the camera would roll and “watch” the behavior of the actors within the scene without discussion or the need to cut away.

While this was Dern’s first experience with Payne, it was June Squib’s second film.  She had a much smaller role in “About Schmidt,” playing Jack Nicholson’s wife.  Working in New York when she received the call to audition for “Nebraska,” Squib selected two scenes she taped and sent in:  the bus station arrival and the cemetery scene.  Hammond asked her way she wanted to do the part.

“Because he asked me,” she said.  “Alexander called me and said I was the first in his mind to do this role.   I was thrilled.  Just the fact that she says whatever she thinks, there’s no filter at all. I kept reading the script and each page was better than the last.  My God, the cemetery scene?  Any actor would give their right arm to do that!”

Will Forte also submitted a taped audition for the role, and was surprised to be called back after nearly five months from the point of submission.  Known primarily for comedic material and a stint on “Saturday Night Live,” Forte didn’t think he’d get a break at a dramatic role for years.  He enjoyed every aspect of the experience, particularly the time he spent driving through Nebraska with Bruce Dern.

“He is nothing like the Woody character; he will not shut up, basically,” joked Forte.  “He was really good to me.  He knew how new an experience, in so many different ways, this was for me.  Everyone was good to me, but Bruce in the car was like going to film school, acting class, and drama class all at the same time.  It was wonderful.”

To learn more about editor Kevin Tent, read the following 411 article:


To learn more about cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, read the following 411 article: