On Friday, Feb. 7, UCSB’s department of Film and Media Studies and the Carsey-Wolf Center presented Academy Award Best Picture nominee “Nebraska” as a part of their “Script-to-Screen” series produced by the Pollock Theater. An exclusive Q&A with screenwriter Bob Nelson followed the free screening.
The film, directed by Alexander Payne (“Election,” “The Descendants”), boasts an eclectic and very talented cast: Bruce Dern (“Django Unchained,” “Big Love,” “Coming Home”), Will Forte (“SNL”), June Squibb (“About Schmidt”) and Bob Odenkirk (“SNL,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mr. Show”). It has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Payne), Best Actor (Dern), Best Supporting Actress (Squibb) and Best Original Screenplay.
The film is a “drama-dy … that word we all hate,” Nelson said to the audience. It follows the journey of a father and son — the senile Woody Grant (Dern) and thirty-something, depressed David (Forte). It is a journey through their relationship and through Middle America — across the vast, empty plains of the modern American Midwest, shot in dismal, cold black and white.
In an interview at the British Film Festival in London, Payne said that the decision was not conscious; when he read the script, he just “saw it in black and white.” Nelson recounted to the audience how Payne sat down with studio executives, proposed the film and added at the very last minute, “Oh yeah — and it’s in black and white.” The executives were not comfortable with a relatively big budget film possibly deterring an audience in that way.
When asked what compelled him to write “Nebraska,” Nelson answered, “employment, desperation, fear.” He wrote the script in 2002, the first thing he had written that was “longer than five minutes,” because he had heard that folks in Hollywood were looking for more film scripts and fewer TV scripts. TV was where he’d been at home for the majority of his career, writing sketches and jokes, but he saw that film scripts could show a writer’s ability to handle story and character development.
Nelson shared that because of his background in comedy (he worked on the show, “Almost Live!” in the 90’s with Bill Nye), he started the story of “Nebraska” with the humor and built the tragedy around that. This explains why the movie succeeds in its clever, thoughtful and often laugh-out-loud hilarious dialogue and memorable characters, but does not quite reach the level of dramatic depth that, say, “The Descendants” reaches.
Woody Grant is based on Nelson’s father — a mechanic, an alcoholic, an inadvertently overgenerous man who frequently lent out his tools and parts, and even a truck once. In the film, Grant lent his air compressor and never got it back for decades. This happened to Nelson’s father in real life. He said that writing this film, for him, is “getting his father’s air compressor back again.”
The simple, mid-western, inert family members that Woody and Dave reunite with in the fictional town of Hawthorne on their way to Lincoln are all based on Nelson’s many aunts, uncles and cousins in Nebraska, whom he visited often growing up (his father was one of 17 siblings). The scenes with these family members — their slow, Nebraskan drawls, the scenes of them sitting around the TV exchanging few words and the hilarious mouth-breathing cousins who make fun of Dave for driving so slowly from Montana to Hawthorne — were largely rooted in memories. Nelson recalls a relative telling him, “that’s not writing, that’s dictation!” Nelson succeeds in painting these characters (played mostly by non-actors whom Payne hired through local newspaper and radio ads) realistically and with good humor, without mocking them. This is a difficult balance that sets this film apart from Payne’s “Election” — a cruel but brilliant satire on Americans from the same region.
The glowing star of the film is Kate, Woody’s wife, played by the wonderfully expressive and fierce June Squibb. She nags Woody constantly as well as her two sons, calling Dave and Woody lunatics for making the trip to Lincoln. When she catches up with them in Hawthorne, dragging Dave’s older brother Ross (Odenkirk) along with her, she brags about all the men in town who, she says, used to want to “get in my bloomers.” To say she is without inhibition is an understatement. Nelson said that her character was almost killed off in the first versions of the script but that he realized how crucial her character is: she holds up the plot line, the drama, as well as the humor. Her one-liners alone make the film worth seeing.
Bruce Dern, a seasoned actor recently honored at our Santa Barbara International Film Festival, gives the performance of a lifetime. As Nelson remarked, the tricky thing about Woody’s character is that “all of his suffering is internal.” Some reviews I have read were unsatisfied and frustrated with Woody as the central character, finding his brusque, skeptical, hard exterior to be empty, unrewarding and ultimately unchanging throughout the film. This is unfair and untrue. Through the various old acquaintances and characters that make up his hometown of Hawthorne, people who knew Woody back in the day, Dave discovers who his father really is. In one instance, we see the way Woody’s face lights up like a child’s when his old friends cheer and praise him, when they believe, as he himself believes, that he has hit the big time.
Dave’s character also grows throughout their journey. In the beginning I was not sure what Forte was capable of, having only seen him in “Saturday Night Live” skits. But he delivers remarkable sensitivity and care in the part and stands out among the other characters in the film.
Also delightful was Dave’s older brother, Ross. His brother is local newscaster with a wife and family; we get the sense that Dave feels inferior. But he plays him perfectly balanced — kind of a jerk, but not really, as Nelson fondly explained.
What was conveyed through the Q&A with Nelson that is not immediately apparent in the film alone was the collaboration between Nelson and Payne. Payne has never directed a film that he has not written himself. He has never truly believed in a story enough until “Nebraska,” a story about the same state where he was born as well. Nelson recounted multiple plot points and moments in the story that Payne altered slightly which made all the difference in the end. Nelson wrote a clever, heartfelt, funny script with memorable characters, and fresh dialogue, and Payne did the director’s job right, bringing the story fully to life.
Of the Best Picture Oscar nominees I have seen this year, “Nebraska” is one that stayed with me, and also grown on me more and more.
A version of this story appeared on page 8 of Thursday, February 13, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.