Director Alexander Payne On Mining Every Film For Comic Potential
This interview was originally broadcast on Dec. 2, 2013.
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 latest film, Nebraska, stars Bruce Dern, who won the best actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his performance. Nebraska has also 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."
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.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our first guest, Alexander Payne, whose film "Nebraska" is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for the performance of Bruce Dern. Payne is nominated in the Best Director category. "Nebraska" is out on DVD next week.
Payne's other films include "Election," "About Schmidt," "Sideways" and "The Descendents." He's directed Jack Nicholson and George Clooney in starring roles and has won two Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Terry interviewed Alexander Payne last year, when "Nebraska" was in theaters. In the film, Bruce Dern plays Woody, an old man who's beginning to show signs of dementia, which is maybe why he falls for one of those junk mail sweepstakes scams and actually believes he's won a million dollars. He can't drive, so he decides to walk from his home in Billings, Montana, to an address in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he thinks he can collect his prize.
Will Forte, a former cast member of "Saturday Night Live," plays his son, who eventually decides to humor his father and drive him to Lincoln. They make various stops along the way, including to his father's hometown. Here's a scene from early in the film, after a cop finds Woody walking on the highway, starting his trek to Nebraska. Woody's son has come to pick him up at the police station and wants to know what's going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")
WILL FORTE: (As David Grant) So you told the sheriff that you were walking to Nebraska.
BRUCE DERN: (As Woody Grant) That's right, to get my million dollars.
FORTE: (As David) What million dollars?
DERN: (As Woody) We are now authorized to pay one million dollars to Woodrow T. Grant of Billings, Montana.
FORTE: (As David) Let me see that.
DERN: (As Woody) And your mother won't take me.
FORTE: (As David) Mega Sweepstakes Marketing. Dad, this is a total come-on. It's one of the oldest gimmicks in the book. I didn't even know they still did it anymore.
DERN: (As Woody) Well, they can't say it if it's not true.
FORTE: (As David) They're just trying to sell you magazines.
DERN: (As Woody) This says I won.
FORTE: (As David) So, mail it in. I'll help you.
DERN: (As Woody) I'm not trusting the mail with a million dollars.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
That's a scene from "Nebraska." Alexander Payne, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the film.
ALEXANDER PAYNE: Thanks very much.
GROSS: So what interested you in the idea of somebody actually taking one of these sweepstakes come-ons at face value?
PAYNE: I thought it would be a nice premise for a little comedy. And I didn't come up with that premise. It came with the screenplay. It's the first one I've directed - it's the first film I've made with a screenplay I didn't originate. I did a re-write on it shortly before shooting. But it was the basic premise, the entryway into this whole story.
I actually thought it was a bit specious to begin with because the writer thought of it 10 years when he originally wrote the script, when Publisher's Clearing House was still more ubiquitous, and now it isn't. Now it's largely Nigerians emailing us with the scams. So I had to put a line of dialogue in, which is: I didn't know they still did this anymore.
GROSS: One of the - one of my favorite lines in the movie, on the way to Nebraska to redeem, you know, to, quote, redeem the million dollars, they stop at Mount Rushmore, because the son convinces his father, like, oh, let's just stop, it's on the way. And the father couldn't care less. And he's staring at it and thinking, like, oh, it's just a pile of rocks. It looks unfinished, Lincoln's ear isn't even finished. And then he says, OK, we've seen it. And like...
PAYNE: And before going there, he says: Why do you want to see Mount Rushmore? It's just a bunch of rocks.
GROSS: And that we've-seen-it thing, I thought, like, I know him.
GROSS: I could easily imagine my father saying that about certain - about certain things.
PAYNE: Yes, yes. Well, I think that dialogue is both like your father, you can imagine him having that attitude about something ostensibly sacred. And then also, the father - who is, to my mind, staring death in the face and fixing to die. And for me thematically, at a lower level, that's what the whole movie is about, is the father fixing to die and looking death in the face and the son offering to kind of help him do so or certainly try to give him some shred of dignity before the old man croaks.
Similarly toward the end of the film, the son takes the father to see the old house, now completely dilapidated, where the father had grown up. And the son says, well, dad, have you seen enough. And the father says oh, I suppose, it's just a bunch of sticks and some weeds.
GROSS: And also the son says to him let's see the house where you grew up, and he says what for.
PAYNE: Nothing in this material plane has much interest for him anymore is kind of what I'm getting out of it.
GROSS: A lot of people who you cast in "Nebraska" are from the area that you shot in.
PAYNE: Oh yeah, I do that on every film, though, but more - but I mean the casting director and I really, really took it seriously on this one.
GROSS: So were they people who were actors locally, like in regional theater or local theater, or were they just people you liked their faces, and you figured in the short scene that they were in they could make it work even though they had no acting experience?
PAYNE: Yeah, it's both, and it's a third. So I have - all my films, and this one even more so, are a combination of highly seasoned professional actors who typically live in Los Angeles or New York; local non-professional actors, as you say, community theater, local commercials, that sort of thing, local theater; and then non-actors, people really off the street or in this case off the farm.
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. It was a long process of putting out casting notices on, for example, rural radio after the farm report.
PAYNE: In small-town newspapers.
GROSS: How would they read? What would they say?
PAYNE: Oh, I can't remember, you know, motion picture casting out of Omaha, we are seeking, you know, and we'd have the descriptions of people we were seeking. And, for example, 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, and come on - just for a hoot let me put you on my iPhone reading these lines of dialogue and let me email it in to Omaha.
And so slowly but surely, over months, some of those began to trickle in. And that's how we began to assemble the cast. And so there are many people in the film who have never even been in a high school play. And my job with John Jackson the casting director is to try to ensure from before that they're all going to be part of the fabric of the same film.
And then obviously directing on set, I have to make sure that the acting styles are sufficiently similar. I mean, at the same time that we're trying to find local non-actors 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. So...
GROSS: That you can't tell the difference between the actors and the non-actors.
PAYNE: Correct, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: It probably helps that the lead actors were not, like, really big movie stars so that the non-actors weren't feeling like, you know...
PAYNE: But I went through it even with Jack Nicholson. I had him, for example, in a scene in "About Schmidt." He's ordering a Dilly Bar or something from a Dairy Queen in Omaha. And there he is acting in a 45-second scene up against the gal who actually worked at that Dairy Queen in Omaha. And I had to make sure that she was going to be bulletproof, that's the word I always use, bulletproof when the camera is running.
Sometimes it's - not sometimes, all the time, it's a matter of making sure that the non-actors are going to be, as I say, bulletproof when surrounded by the lights and the technicians and the trucks and all the movie-making machinery. But also having the highly seasoned professionals act flatter than they might act in other films, act - because real life is flatter than what we see in movies and theater, so - and that's the vibe I want in the films.
GROSS: So I have to ask you, there is a scene while - when Bruce Dern and Will Forte are on the road together, heading toward Nebraska, and they're passed on the highway by a bunch of bikers. Was than an homage to Bruce Dern's film "The Wild Angels"?
PAYNE: No, I hadn't thought about that until you mentioned it right now. That is - I was just thinking...
GROSS: Because he plays a biker in that.
PAYNE: Correct, yeah, yeah. No, that was trying to make South Dakota seem real because when you drive though South Dakota, you always see a lot of bikers.
GROSS: Fair enough.
PAYNE: And that was the single most expensive shot in the film.
PAYNE: It goes by quickly. Well, 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.
PAYNE: Insurance liability. You've got two moving parts, 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 stuntmen from Los Angeles and rent the bikes and rent the costumes, and they will pretend to be bikers.
And we did the numbers. That was about a $50,000 hit on a very small budget, which I couldn't afford from the budget. So I actually 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.
GROSS: I have a directing question for you. But in order to get to the question, we have to hear a clip. And the clip is an excerpt of an interview I did with Margo Martindale, the wonderful actress who a lot of people might know as Hilary Swank's mother in the Clint Eastwood movie - why am I blanking out on the name?
PAYNE: "Million Dollar Baby."
GROSS: Thank you. "Million Dollar Baby." And also she was terrific in "Justified," as this like Kentucky woman who runs this like kind of drug business.
GROSS: So anyway, so you were directing her. It's a film called "Paris, je t'aime." And this was like an anthology film. There are several sequences in it, several separate stories. Each story is directed and written by different people. So the one that you did stars Margo Martindale.
And the story here is she's taking like an adult education course in French. And she decides to go to France alone. And it's not the, like, exciting, romantic trip to France that everybody hopes for because she's still just alone and she doesn't really know French culture. She's not really sure how to get around.
But at the end, she's sitting on a bench in a park watching the children play and watching other people, you know, lovers go by and everything. She has this just like little emotional moment of just seeing the beauty of life. And I was asking her about that scene. And I just want to play you what she had to say about playing that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARGO MARTINDALE: It was in a park in Paris in the 14th Arrondissement. And I was sitting on a park bench, and this was like being me, this thing. It was - I was sitting on a park bench, and I went from looking at some old people on a bench and thinking of my mother and all the people that were gone to panning over to seeing a playground full of children and thinking of my daughter growing up, and it just was there, just immediately.
GROSS: Oh. Well, I could see how it would be there because the emotion is still so there.
MARTINDALE: It's just, you know, it's all about life. It was so easy. I'm sorry. It was so easy to do.
GROSS: No. No. No.
MARTINDALE: MARTINDALE: Yeah. And so everything else was just, you know, and Alexander directed me as if he were directing a silent movie, which was fantastic. It was a perfect combination for me.
GROSS: That's the actress Margo Martindale talking about her scene, her final scene in the movie "Paris, je t'aime." And she was directed by my guest, Alexander Payne. And she had talked earlier in the interview about her mother dying, which is one of the things she was thinking about in that scene.
She obviously had this really, like, authentic moment of emotion while playing that scene. And even while just thinking about that scene she was very emotional. I was thinking about you directing her and wondering, like, say something happen so that you couldn't use that take. Say like somebody walked by unintentionally or something happened and you couldn't use that perfect take.
What would you do? Because you probably had a sense that she had went, like, so deep and was so fully experiencing the moment in character. It would have been hard, I think, for her to - maybe it wouldn't be hard for her to go there again. Can you talk about that?
PAYNE: You see in that clip that she has very ready access to emotion. And that's what...
PAYNE: And that's what the great actors have. And that's why life is often so difficult for them because they can't keep their emotions tamped down, as like...
GROSS: Oh, that's so interesting.
PAYNE: ...as you and I can. So then if you can put an oil pump on that spurting oil well of emotion, then you can be a professional actor. And so I think we did four or five takes, and she was equally good in all of them. And it was just a matter of making sure the camera was right and the timing with the voiceover and so forth.
But I clearly remember having three or four great takes to deal with. The good ones could keep it going. It's not just like, oh, one take where they really hit that emotion. Well, yeah, maybe, but let's try again, the cameraman missed it. You know, it's, you know, the assistant cameraman made your eyes out of focus, so we need to do it again.
Or I remember telling Paul Giamatti in "Sideways," he was really in a deep place, and I had to say, OK, stop, Paul, could you please rotate your head 12 degrees to the left? I mean we all have to understand that film is technical as well as emotional.
GROSS: So if it is true, that observation that you just made, that actors more readily tap into their emotions and that those emotions are always kind of gushing and...
GROSS: ...that's responsible for some of the problems they often have in life.
PAYNE: Oh yeah. And I think...
PAYNE: Sorry. Go ahead.
GROSS: Yeah. No. No. Go ahead.
PAYNE: No. I was just going to say, there's a way in which 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.
GROSS: And a lot of actors want to become the directors.
PAYNE: Good for them.
DAVIES: Alexander Payne, speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with director Alexander Payne.
GROSS: I was re-watching "The Descendents" in preparation for our interview and arrived at the same conclusion I did the first time I saw it: it's really a terrific film. And it stars George Clooney, whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident.
And that leads him to find out a lot about her and about himself and about his children. And it's like other films of yours - it both has a lot of emotion and humor in it as well, and you manage to find a really nice balance.
But I love the opening narration. And I think the opening narration just tells you everything you kind of need to know to get in the right frame of mind for the movie. And I'd like to play that opening narration. And this is George Clooney.
And as we're hearing this opening narration onscreen, we're seeing shots of life in Hawaii. He's a Hawaiian who is descendent from a long line of important Hawaiians. So here is the opening voiceover from Alexander Payne's film "The Descendents."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DESCENDENTS")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GEORGE CLOONEY: (as Matt King) My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I'm in paradise. Like a permanent vacation, we're all just out here sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips and catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we're immune to life?
How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, our heartaches less painful? Hell, I haven't been on a surfboard in 15 years. For the last 23 days, I've been living in a paradise of IVs and urine bags and tracheal tubes. Paradise? Paradise can go (bleep) itself.
GROSS: That's George Clooney's voiceover from the opening of "The Descendents," directed by my guest, Alexander Payne. So you wrote that line, do they think we're immune to life?
GROSS: I was wondering if you think some people have that thought about people in Hollywood, that they're immune to life because they make these, like, fabulous films and they live in a fabulous world and they have money and fabulous homes.
PAYNE: I don't know. I can't give a very good answer to that. I don't know.
GROSS: What did you think when you were wanting to make movies and you were young?
PAYNE: I actually wasn't looking forward to it. But now that I do live part of the time in Los Angeles, I also live in Omaha, I like it. I've come to see it as a great, great city. And older Hollywood, because I'm a film buff, is fantastic. And, you know, you can trash living in Los Angeles or living in Hollywood, but I'm driving down the street and I turn and, oh look, there's Vendom(ph). There's the stairs that Laurel and Hardy carried the piano up in "The Music Box."
PAYNE: And here's the, here I'm in Los Feliz, there's the house that was used in "Double Indemnity." And it's just, it's delightful, and you think of what creation of culture for the world was created there in the teens and '20s and '30s and '40s. But I think about silent comedy a lot and what was done, the brilliance of what our comic actors did in the '20s, and I'm just, I'm filled with pride.
GROSS: What do you love about silent movies?
PAYNE: First of all, let me say, I'm no expert. I like silent films a lot, but I know people who are experts, and I'm no expert. But my line about it is that, for example, they say that often a filmmaker's first film can be his or her best. Why? Because he or she has been waiting 30, 35 years to tell that story. So a lifetime of whatever it is, frustration or observation, that all comes out. I feel the same way about cinema. I think that mankind had been looking for this magnificently verisimilar art form which really mirrors life.
And that the first 30 years of it, it all came out. And before it was harnessed to be really industrial and present a more reliable, predictable, marketable product, silent film from the get-go was just all over the place, and often much more oneiric, more dreamlike in its imagery and taps into how cinema's relationship with dream and the excitement of creating cinema, creating a new art form.
GROSS: Margo Martindale said you directed the scene that we were discussing earlier on the park bench as if it were a silent film. What does that mean?
PAYNE: I don't know exactly what she meant but probably - and I direct a lot like this, which is talking through takes. So.
GROSS: What does that mean?
PAYNE: The actor is acting, and I'm coaching them the performance moment by moment like they used to do, you know, in that cliche with the director with the jodhpurs and the megaphone. So I'm saying, oh, do this now. Do this now. Look left. Look right. Look up. Feel sad. Cry. I might say, if they don't get a line quite right, I might tell the camera, OK, keep rolling. Now try that line again, but do it this way. Stick to your guns a little bit more or whatever it is. I talk through takes a lot.
GROSS: Alexander Payne, this has been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
PAYNE: I feel the same. Thanks a lot, Terry.
DAVIES: Alexander Payne, speaking with Terry Gross. His film "Nebraska" has been nominated for six Academy Awards. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.