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Alexander Payne's New Film Takes Him Home

By Jesy Odio '15

Published Oct 17, 2013 8:00 AM

Both the story and the setting of Nebraska are close to the heart of the meticulous director.

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Left to right: Will Forte, Bruce Dern, and Stacy Keach
Copyright ©2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Photo credit: Merie Wallace

In selecting locations for his films, director Alexander Payne '90 is cautious and meticulous. Although his films are satirical, lighthearted, and tongue-in-cheek ironic, his process in choosing the right setting is serious. For his newest project, he chose to go home to Nebraska.

Maybe, in some ways, Nebraska is to Alexander Payne what Manhattan is to Woody Allen. Both filmmakers use a clever, sardonic tone to depict the quotidian American lifestyle. Now, with the release of Nebraska, set to open on November 15, Payne joins Allen in making a film set in his home state and shot in black and white.

Since Payne graduated from the UCLA School of Film, Theater, and Television with an M.F.A. in 1990, he has released widely popular comedies, including Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011). But for Nebraska, he returns to his native state with a story about a middle-aged son coping with his alcoholic father who is convinced that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstakes.

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Payne, left, on set with Dern
Copyright ©2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Photo credit: Merie Wallace

Veteran actor Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, the gullible father. Will Forte '93, mostly known as a comedian and for his Saturday Night Live skits, plays David, the reluctant son who accompanies his father to pick up his supposed fortune. Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb and Stacey Keach have significant supporting roles as well.

Although Payne didn’t write the screenplay, he was drawn to the story about dealing with aging parents. "One thing I really liked was David’s wish to give his father some dignity. That theme was important and personal to me," says Payne. And it is Payne’s ability to make a highly specific situation feel strangely familiar and intimate that makes all of his films seem so sincere.

From the beginning, Payne made the bold decision to shoot this modern-day story in black and white. "Visual style was my window into the picture," he says. "This modest, austere story lends itself to a visual style as stark, plain and direct as the lives of the people in the film."

For Payne, the story and its telling are always paramount. He has often expressed his concern about the machinery of filmmaking getting in the way. "I always fear it will mar the intimacy of what I'm hoping to shoot," he told the Los Angeles Times. "When I say 'action,' I mentally wish it all away, and I'm back in film school next to a Super 8 camera, and it's just me and the camera and the actor. I have to have that same kind of intimate feeling, with the actors in front of me." The father-son odyssey in Nebraska seems to be a perfect story for this kind of storyteller.