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Alexander Payne on Making Movie Magic in America's Heartland

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Alexander Payne on Making Movie Magic in America’s Heartland

For most people, movies are a form of escapism. For filmmaker Alexander Payne, they are an opportunity to time travel back to his Nebraska roots. The 60-year-old two-time Academy Award winner (Best Adapted Screenplay for “Sideways” and “The Descendants”) has earned a reputation for making the inhabitants and landscapes of the Cornhusker State staples of his critically-acclaimed, emotionally complex work. “I was, and remain, tired of seeing American films only set in New York and LA,” he says. “I have always dreamed of shooting movies in Nebraska.” To date, Payne has made seven feature films. Five of those “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Downsizing,” and, of course, “Nebraska” have been shot at least in part in Nebraska.

Growing Roots in Omaha

In 1961, George and Peggy Payne welcomed a son, Constantine Alexander Payne. They lived in Omaha a city Payne calls the “Paris of Nebraska.” His paternal grandfather Nicholas Payne had immigrated from Greece to the small city along the Missouri River, rich with pioneer history. He ran the Virginia Café a popular restaurant in the heart of the downtown dining scene that “served up to 3,000 meals a day,” notes Payne.

“My family had it for 50 years, and it had been a 24-hour restaurant for almost 30 years before my grandfather bought it in 1920.” By the time Payne was a young boy, his father was running the eatery. As fate would have it, Kraft Foods sent his dad an 8mm projector as a loyal customer reward in the 1960s. Payne quickly mastered threading the film into the camera to watch movies with his brothers. By age 14, he got his own super 8 camera and started making movies.

In that respect, the restaurant played a significant role in Payne’s future especially after tragedy struck. “It was a real institution in downtown Omaha until it burned down just shy of its 50th anniversary in 1969,” Payne says. The fire occurred in the middle of the night just before Payne’s 9th birthday. After that, he watched his father scramble to rebound from losing the family business. That stuck with the filmmaker whose satirical, dark comedies often depict ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances in the aftermath of a crisis. “What’s beautiful about being a filmmaker is that our clay is actual human behavior,” says Payne. “What comes through to the audience is the feeling the director has for the world and for people.”

It’s that personal connection that keeps bringing him back to his birthplace. “Other Americans know Nebraska as a place they either drive through or fly over, and if they happen to drive through it, they say ‘Boy, that state is flat,’” says Payne, explaining that he tries “to have a documentary approach to feature fiction filmmaking. And not just the right locations and the right costumes and the right extras, which is huge. The film has to have the right rhythms of the location where it’s being made. Omaha, in a way, is its own sort of European country for me. I’ve never been interested in making films in Anytown, USA. I like my films to have a specific place.”

After high school, Payne attended Stanford University and majored in Spanish and History. Still, his childhood love of movies hadn’t faded, and he went on to earn his MFA in 1990 from UCLA’s film school. “From the age of five, I was head over heels in love with movies and watched everything,” he recalls. “But coming from Omaha, as the grandson of Greek immigrants, it was a distant dream to become a film director. Nevertheless, I always had it in my mind, but I had to come to it slowly.”

Spotlight on Nebraska

Early in his career, filming in Nebraska seemed a natural fit. “I always wanted to see Nebraskans on film, as though the people I know here matter,” says Payne. Five years after film school, production began on his first feature, “Citizen Ruth,” in his home state. The satirical film starred Laura Dern as a bedraggled, substance-abusing pregnant woman who finds herself in the middle of a national abortion debate. Payne populated the black comedy with highly unlikable characters and shined a spotlight on the contradictions associated with pro-life and pro-choice supporters. “Citizen Ruth” helped establish Payne as a filmmaker with his finger on the pulse of satirical, dark comedies depicting modern American society. It also confirmed good movies could be made in Nebraska.

Another Nebraska-based production, “Election,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, soon followed. Filming took place in Omaha, Elkhorn, Bellevue, and Papillion in 1999. “Election” was his breakthrough and garnered Payne his first Academy Award nomination, along with his writing partner Jim Taylor, for Best Adapted Screenplay. And again in 2002, he brought the “About Schmidt” production, which included Hollywood heavyweights Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates, to Omaha, Kearney, Minden, Nebraska City, Ogallala, and Lincoln locations. Payne shot scenes for both of those films in Omaha’s Dundee-Happy Hollow Historic District neighborhood, where he grew up. “In my first three films, I was trying to capture that elusive sense of place,” he explains. My other films (“Sideways” and “The Descendants”), shot in places like California and Hawaii, wouldn’t have been as successful in capturing a sense of place if I hadn’t first developed some skills in Nebraska.”

Then came “Nebraska,” Payne’s fourth film set in the state. He utilized black and white to capture the grittiness of an aging, alcoholic father showing the early signs of dementia, played by Bruce Dern, and his skeptical yet earnest son, portrayed by Will Forte. The pair are on a voyage across America’s heartland in pursuit of a delusional million-dollar prize and the potential to repair their bond. Scenes for the dramatic comedy, which cost $13 million, were filmed in rural northeast Nebraska.

So it should come as no surprise that Payne set his first sci-fi movie, 2017′s “Downsizing,” in Nebraska as well. Instead of aliens in outer space, he populated it with a middle-class couple, portrayed by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. At first, Payne wasn’t interested in making the movie about a couple that signs up to undergo a shrinking procedure called “downsizing,” created by Norwegian scientists to help save the world from humankind’s destruction. According to Payne, “Jim and I thought scientists seeking a way to prevent climate change and overpopulation would conceive of it as a crazy but sane solution. That was our entry point to the story. We saw that it was an entry point not just to talk about climate change and overpopulation, but a host of other things. It became a science fiction-slash-political metaphor. Then we had to find a protagonist to carry us through the world in which this is happening, and we settled upon a schnook from Omaha. We are telling the story of the world itself, but also the story of a man.”

Matt Damon’s down-to-earth appearance landed him that leading man role. “Among stars of his age who can bring a decent budget, there’s really only Matt Damon. He’s a wonderful movie star who looks like a human being; he doesn’t necessarily look like a movie star. He looks like someone I might have known in Omaha,” says Payne.

Locals Act With A-Listers

Casting award-winning celebrities to play schnooks is not what makes Payne’s projects feel so authentically awkward that comes from his ability to round out the supporting roles with real faces. “All of my films 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 there are the non-actors, people really off the street or in the case of “Nebraska,” off the farm, whom John Jackson, my casting director, and I make a point of finding,” Payne explains. For “Nebraska,” Payne says, “it took over a year of casting to find those retired farmers who play Bruce Dern’s character’s brothers and their wives. It was a lengthy process of putting out casting notices on rural radio after the farm report or in small-town newspapers.”

Hollywood is the furthest thing from the mind of those hardworking Nebraskan farmers, which is why Payne says, “We targeted 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 to Omaha.’” It worked. “Slowly but surely, over months, some of those [auditions] began to trickle in, and that’s how we began to assemble the cast. So, there are many people in the film who had never even been in a high school play,” says Payne. “At the same time, we’re trying to find 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 same setting.”

While filming “About Schmidt,” Payne recalls one such occasion, “Jack Nicholson is ordering a Dilly Bar 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. I had to make sure that she was going to be bulletproof when the camera is running, when she’s surrounded by lights, technicians, the trucks, and all the movie-making machinery. But at the same time, you have to make sure the highly seasoned professional actors act flatter than they might in other films because real life is flatter than what we see in movies and theater and that’s the vibe I want in the films.” Flatter, indeed, fits for Nebraska.

There’s No Place Like Home

“I still live there a lot of the time, and also, it’s kind of funny to shoot there,” says Payne. Both of his Academy Award statuettes live, all of the time, amongst his assorted Nebraska memorabilia. “I have a massive collection of Old Omaha postcards,” he says. “Some of these are one-of-a-kind glimpses into yesterday.”

Payne says one of his dream projects would take place in old downtown Omaha using digital technology to recreate the past. “I just need the right screenplay,” he says.



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