Alexander Payne speaks with a humorous, casual tone that you wouldn’t expect from someone who’s made so many acclaimed films. However, when you look at the scope of his filmography, it does make some sense. His films are grounded in a casual reality, with likable, quirky characters that are often funny and heartfelt at the same time. That’s what the press conference I was lucky enough to partake in was like: quirky and heartfelt. The filmmaker is at his most heartfelt when he talks about the state he’s originally from, Nebraska. Ironically enough, his new film is Nebraska, a quirky family dramedy of sorts that’s gaining real awards traction this season, especially for Bruce Dern and June Squibb, who are both excellent in the film.
I was lucky enough to see the film prior to this interview, and I enjoyed it a fair amount, and I’d most certainly lock down June Squibb as the favorite for Best Supporting Actress. She walks away with every scene she’s in. However, what I found most interesting about Nebraska was its black-and-white ascetic and the decision to cast SNL alum Will Forte (his most infamous foray into film acting was MacGruber, hardly Oscar material) in the film’s leading role. Those were the questions I planned to ask Payne. However, as my question was down on the list, with several other, collegiate interviewers (I was the only high school student in the bunch) to come before me, the questions over black-and-white and Will Forte were taken up very early on. It was time to scramble for a new question. As the only one who had seen the film, I had had a short interaction with Payne earlier, but now it was my time to ask:
Tyler Stevens: When I saw it, I was very struck by the locations. It’s very unusual. I live in a big city. It was just very nice to see. What was it like filming in kind of very small towns across America?
Alexander Payne: It was really fun. And I – most of the shooting was in northeastern Nebraska. I happen to be from Omaha. But a lot of Omahans don’t really know the rural rest of the state. So it was a nice excuse for me to get to know the rest of my state. And it took over a year of scouting. I put over 20,000 miles on my car scouting Nebraska to find – what I was looking for was a main small town where I can house the crew, around which town orbit very small towns of say between 900 and 1,500 people. Towns I could use to piece together the mythical town of Hawthorne, Nebraska in the film. So I wound up picking Norfolk, Nebraska, population 25,000, and around it are about 10 or 12 small towns that I used, namely one called Plainview, Nebraska. And so it was – but listen, man, when you’re making a – after the screenplay is as good as it can be, the most important thing is then, for me, choosing the locations and choosing the cast. And for this film, both took well over a year.
Tyler Stevens: Thank you very much.
Alexander Payne: You’re very welcome.
And with that, my time with Payne was over, and the rest of the questions proceeded with a calculated swiftness and with Payne’s usual friendliness. The final question, a rushed one that came in just as we ran out of time, asked Payne what he sees himself as the master of. His response:
Alexander Payne: I don’t know, man. Honestly I can come up with sarcastic answers, but a serious one is – that wouldn’t be for me to say.
Maybe it wouldn’t be for Payne to say. But he’s certainly one of the masters of 2013 with Nebraska, and he’s certainly one of modern cinema’s greatest gems.