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Director Alexander Payne On Mining Every Film For Comic Potential

Alexander Payne arrives at the 69th annual Golden Globe Awards in 2012.
Chris Pizzello
Alexander Payne arrives at the 69th annual Golden Globe Awards in 2012.

Alexander Payne directed and co-wrote the films Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants. He's directed Jack Nicholson and George Clooney in starring roles and has won two Oscars for best adapted screenplay.

His new film, Nebraska, stars Bruce Dern, who won the best actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his performance. Nebraska also just received six Independent Spirit Award nominations, including best feature and best director. In it, Dern plays an old man who is beginning to show signs of dementia — which is maybe why he falls for one of those junk-mail sweepstakes scams and actually believes that he's won $1 million. He's convinced that all he needs to do to collect his money is show up at the Lincoln, Neb., address that's mentioned on the mailing. That won't be easy because he lives in Billings, Mont., and can no longer drive — so he starts walking.

Payne tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that even with a story like Nebraska, he's always looking for a film's comic potential.

"I approach them all as comedies," he says. "... When I was reading the script [for Nebraska], I read it as a comedy ... but then with moments of gravity or realism to anchor it in our world."

Interview Highlights

On why his films often deal with fathers

I think many of us have experiences with fathers who ... are loving, they are nice, but somehow they're on another planet and you wonder your whole life, "What is that planet that my father is on?" ... [My father was] at once communicative and unknowable. ... Maybe there's some dynamic between children and fathers which contributes to the children feeling like their fathers are unknowable.

I'm always thinking about what would make a good movie and I don't deny that those themes are there or that I'm attracted to them, but I'm not thinking about them so much while conceiving the film. I'm thinking, "This could work, this scene could hold, this could be funny, this rhythm is off." I'm just thinking about it more mechanically. After the film is over, then I have a greater sense of what the themes are.

On Nebraska's most expensive shot

[I] was trying to make South Dakota seem real, because if you drive through South Dakota, you always see a lot of bikers. That was the single most expensive shot in the film and it goes by quickly.

I thought, "Well, we're in South Dakota, we'll just get some bikers to drive by the car," and the studio said, "No way, Jose." [Because of] insurance liability, you've got three moving parts: You've got the hero car — that is, the car with the actors — a bunch of bikers and we were in a moving vehicle behind shooting. And so they said, "You have to fly in stunt men from Los Angeles and rent the bikes and rent the costumes and they will pretend to be bikers." And we did the numbers and that was about a $50,000 hit on a very small budget, which I couldn't afford from the budget, so we had to make a special appeal to the studio: "Will you give me $50,000 extra to get that one shot?" And bless their hearts, they said yes.

On hiring local, retired farmers to appear in Nebraska

All of my films, and [Nebraska] even more so, are a combination of highly seasoned, professional actors who typically live in Los Angeles or New York; local, nonprofessional actors ... [who do] community theater, local commercials, that sort of thing ... and then nonactors, people really off the street or, in this case, off the farm whom John Jackson, my casting director, and I make a point of finding.

For this film, it took over a year of casting to find, for example, those retired farmers who play some of Bruce Dern's character's brothers and their wives. And it was a long process of putting out casting notices on, for example, rural radio after the farm report or in small-town newspapers. ... For retired farmers, we weren't so much expecting them to submit auditions, so we were targeting their kids — in their 40s, 50s, 60s — who might go over to their folks' house on a Sunday and say, "Hey! Look at this, I read this. Come on, just for a hoot let me put you on my iPhone reading these lines of dialogue and let me email it into Omaha."

So slowly but surely, over months, some of those began to trickle in and that's how we began to assemble the cast. So there are many people in the film who have never even been in a high school play. ... At the same time we're trying to find nonactors who can reliably present an unselfconscious version of themselves when the camera is running, I also have to ensure that the professionals coming from the coasts are believable in that setting.

On actor-director relationships

I've observed that actors and directors envy each other. I think a director envies an actor's ready access to emotion and how beautiful that is, and I think actors can envy directors' dealing more clinically with emotions, ordering them about dispassionately.

On why he likes living in Hollywood

Older Hollywood, because I'm a film buff, is fantastic. ... You can trash living in Los Angeles or living in Hollywood, but I'm driving down the street and, oh look, there's ... the stairs that Laurel and Hardy carried the piano up in The Music Box. Now I'm in Los Feliz, there's the house that was used in Double Indemnity. It's delightful, and you think of what ... was created there in the teens and '20s and '30s and '40s. But I think about silent comedy a lot and the brilliance of what comic actors did in the '20s and I'm filled with pride.

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