In the film, Dern plays Woody Grant, a retiree who's convinced that he has to travel from Montana to Nebraska to claim the million dollars he "won" in a sweepstakes scam. And since Woody can't be persuaded otherwise, his son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him. Casting the right actors for the right parts has always been a crucial aspect of Payne's films, leading to a string of Oscar nominations for his casts, a streak that's likely to continue this year with Dern. It's why he was so confident in giving Dern what the Hollywood vet has called the best role he's ever had, or knowing that an "SNL" alum like Forte could handle the film's dramatic moments just as well as its deadpan comedy.
Moviefone Canada sat down with Payne in Toronto this week to discuss his casting process, the joy he gets watching a seasoned actor like Dern share scenes with retired Nebraskan farmers, and why he had to agree to take less money to make "Nebraska" in black-and-white.
Moviefone Canada: Between the old Paramount logo and the black-and-white, the movie feels like a throwback to a different era in a lot of ways. Why did you decide to go black-and-white?
Alexander Payne: It just felt right. I'd always wanted to make one black-and-white film. And I knew it couldn't be expensive. But also thematically, it just felt right in black-and-white. The screenplay seemed to suggest a black-and-white film, at least to me. That very deadpan humour, austere lives, just seemed to suggest black-and-white.
Did that idea come very early on in the process?
Oh yeah, from the first time I read the screenplay. And I hope you as a viewer watched it and felt, "Of course. This had to be in black-and-white." You try to imagine it in colour and it doesn't quite work.
Did you meet any resistance though about making a black-and-white movie?
Hell yes! [Laughs] Are you crazy? No studio wants to hear the filmmaker come in and say, "This should be in black-and-white."
You're not more immune to that kind of second-guessing now than you might have been a few Oscars ago?
No, you're not immune to it. I was still able to get it made for a very shrink-wrapped budget. Because ultimately they suspected they would make money from it, with my directing it, and my track record, and the fact that we had a very, very reduced budget. I mean, the budget was fully $3 million dollars less than I would've had had it been in colour, so I had to just make it in a slightly reduced fashion. But that's OK. It's always a good exercise, unless you're being emasculated in terms of how you can make the film. But it's not a bad exercise to be forced to shoot very efficiently and hopefully still elegantly.
I know that you first read this script about nine years ago. What took so long for this to come to fruition?
Very simple, I didn't want to follow-up "Sideways," one road picture, with another road picture. I wanted to get out of the f**king car. [Laughs] So that's why. I just didn't know it was going to take so long between "Sideways" and "The Descendants." But as soon as "The Descendants" was finished, I dove into this one.
How did you choose your actors for this? Obviously there's Bruce Dern and Will Forte, but there's also a whole bunch of actors that we haven't seen much of before.
Well, there are many non-actors in the film, people really taken off the street, or off the farm as it were. The film has three types of actors: one is highly-seasoned professional, the other is non-professional actors, for example, actors from community theatre, and third is non-actors, which is people we actively seek to play versions of themselves on-screen. And John Jackson, my casting director, and I have worked together for many years and developed our techniques for ensuring that all three of those actors are in the same film, and that the audience can't really tell the difference between them.
How do you make sure that blend works?
It's two sides of one coin. One is making sure that the seasoned professionals I bring in from New York and Los Angeles and Chicago are believable as being from the Midwest of the United States, and then the other side is making sure that the non-actors I'm hiring are bulletproof, meaning that they won't freak out and either freeze or become too self-conscious once surrounded by a camera and 60 technicians and me yelling at them. And it just takes time, but they're all there. There's talent everywhere. And what's fun for John Jackson and me is to find people who had no idea that they would be good actors. Seeing that in them and pulling that out, that's really beautiful. Not that they ever wanted to do it or care about it, but to say, "You know what, you could do this. Come on. Just stand over there and say this line. Just get mad at him, tell him what you think."
For example, the woman who fights with June Squibb, she's never even been in a high school play. That's a woman who has owned taverns in a tiny town called Nebraska City, Nebraska. Her daughter found out about the casting opportunity, drove her up, helped her out, held her hand while doing it. This lady, her name is Glendora Stitt, when I asked her, "How do you feel about the idea of maybe being in a movie?" She said, "Well, if the Lord wants it, I'll do it."
It's a beautiful experience. We put out casting notices on rural radio, you know, after the farm reports, and in small-town newspapers looking for people. Knowing that the older retired farmers we were seeking would not themselves respond, so we were aiming toward their kids in their 40s, 50s, 60s to go over to their folks' house with a flip camera or an iPhone. And then they'd email it in to us, and we didn't get many, but they started to filter in. Everything just takes time. Time and patience.
Does that balance affect the atmosphere on set?
You mean making it pretty hilarious? Yes, when you get all these different people. It's such an honour to have Bruce Dern acting with Neal and Eula Freudenburg from a small town in Nebraska. I mean, it's just an interesting thing to watch. Making a film touches so many lives. It's a neat thing making movies, and how my own life is touched by it. And of course, the babies who are born nine months after production. [Laughs]
Obviously Bruce Dern's gotten a lot of media coverage for his performance, and it's well-deserved, but are you happy to also be able to show people a different side of Will Forte than they might've expected?
Yeah, sure. I mean, I don't really care about helping his career. [Laughs] I care about his appropriateness for this film. But I can say that I don't see him as "funnyman Will Forte," I see him as an actor who's equally adept at comedy and drama, and maybe even what I was saying before about finding non-actors and saying, "Oh, you could do this." Sometimes it can work too with professionals, that I see in him a dramatic actor maybe more than he ever saw. There are many comic actors who either aren't worth looking at if they're not doing something funny, they're not very interesting if they're not doing something funny, or comic actors who might be interesting, except they always have to play the comedy if they smell the comedy. And Will is neither of those. I find him very relatable, he has sweetness and sincerity, which come through on-screen, and I'm very happy for him.
What convinced you that he could do it?
His audition. He lobbed an audition tape into our office and I watched it, and then a few weeks later we called him in. And I just believed him. Casting is just about believing it. When we're shooting, I don't watch a monitor, I'm right there with the actors, and then when I say "Action," I just imagine that there's no camera, and no lights, and no technicians, I'm just there watching these people -- do I believe it? And if something doesn't feel right, I'll just say, "That didn't quite feel right, I didn't believe that part."
"Nebraska" opens in theatres on November 22.