An unassuming man in a gray cardigan and worn down jeans, film director Alexander Payne graced us with his presence tonight at UW-Madison. It felt natural that he spoke to UW after a showing of “Nebraska.” We’re all midwesterners here. And even the most successful midwesterner here- that is, Payne- is an approachable, friendly man. Listening to him speak about working with rock stars like Bruce Dern and Will Forte was like listening a friend talk about work over beers at the Old Fashioned.
The film itself was just as unassuming as Payne. A digitally-shot, black and white piece, “Nebraska” never was pretentious or reaching. Actually, it was simple in the best way possible. People spoke like midwesterners do; cornfields bookended the screen on more than one occasion; the pace remained slow but the plot remained intriguing. The simplest part of this movie, though, is the storyline. I do not mean this negatively at all. Watching a movie with a straightforward storyline, genuine actors, and clever, dry writing is always a treat. On the most basic level, “Nebraska” is about a deluded, older man on a journey to retrieve his $1,000,000 from Lincoln, Nebraska. On a deeper level, it is about a son finally understanding his father. The final scene shows Woody Grant (the father) driving down main street of his hometown. It’s almost like a parade. Woody is proving to all these people that he’s worth something: he didn’t win the money but finally got a new truck; he can now drive on his own (or so it appears as his son crouches on the car floor) and assert his independence. It’s a beautiful moment.
Payne spoke a little about why he made this movie. “Nebraska” was the first film he’s ever directed that he hasn’t written. One of the reasons he chose “Nebraska” was the title; this was his fourth movie set in Nebraska. The script gave him the ability to shoot in rural Omaha and to integrate Nebraska jargon in the film. He also enjoyed the “deadpan, midwest humor” and how these actors delivered their dry lines. Indeed, the actors gave great performances. Interestingly enough, many of the supporting roles are played by regional actors, the type of people who act in community theater. Other roles were played by non-actors, people who have never even been in a high school play. The medical technician who stitched up Woody’s head (not a scene for the faint-of-heart) was played by an actual medical technician. Even June Squibb, who dynamically portrays David Grant’s filter-less mother, hasn’t had a large acting career in movies. Nothing that has gotten her as much traction as “Nebraska” has, at least. However, she is obviously a very experienced actress. Payne spoke about how bluntly Squibb responded when reporters asked her “Aren’t you surprised?” about her Oscar nomination. “No!” Squibb would respond. “I deserve this!”
This midwestern road trip was charming, funny, and even a little dark. Payne’s direction was brilliant. Was it odd that he didn’t write this script? Payne said, no. He prefers the editing process (which took 5 or 6 months for “Nebraska”) over the writing process. In his words, “Writing is important but painful… Editing is the promised land.”
The final reason this script resonated with Payne was that “Nebraska,” basically, is about kindness. He read a script with a climax about a “moment of kindness” rather than a “moment of violence,” and that appealed to him. Indeed, even though some of these characters are dark, they’re kind. Woody Grant is a deluded alcoholic, but he’s never wanted to say no to anyone his entire life. Kate, his wife, is blunt and thoughtless at times, but really she’s a caring, passionate person. She complains that Woody is acting like an idiot by chasing this fantasy (this $1 million), but the minute people start trying to take advantage of him for his new fortune, she stands up for him. David is stagnant and maybe a little depressed, but he never stopped being kind. He ultimately helped his father feel like he won a million bucks even though the contest was a scam.
Payne succeeded in creating a midwestern movie with a lot of heart.