For Leo Biga, an Omaha based journalist and film buff, it could not have been a better moment.
Alexander Payne was driving Biga back from one of the final screenings of his latest film. Just a few minutes earlier they had been in a private screening room at the offices of Technicolor in Hollywood. Only a handful of others had been in the room. The director was close to giving his final approval.
Biga taped the conversation on a small pocket tape recorder. Payne was clearly pleased with what they had just watched.
“I’m very proud of all the Nebraska non-actors,” Payne can be heard saying. The movie features locals he had cast while filming late last year in northeast Nebraska. They were bartenders, waitresses, and police officers. “They really have those jobs,” he added with some pride.
Biga recently released a book, Alexander Payne: His Journey into Film. It collects a decade’s worth of newspaper and magazine essays detailing production of Payne’s previous four movies. With the new movie on the way Biga is back on the Payne beat, producing another round of articles.
“I came in at the very tail end of what is the most important process, the editing process, which is his favorite part of the process, and that is where the film all comes together,” Biga said.
Biga’s reporting on Payne began just as the director rose to the attention of Hollywood. Citizen Ruth, his first film, starred Laura Dern and won immediate respect in the film community for pulling off what on paper seems to be the impossible: a satirically balanced satire on both sides of the abortion debate.
Payne returned to Omaha in 1998 to make his second hometown movie, the acidly funny high school comedy Election. The cast had star power with Matthew Broderick and his about-to-be-famous co-star Reese Witherspoon.
Biga recognized not only was Payne a great local story to cover, but also Payne was an emerging figure in the arts “who was doing something important and special in film which has never happened in the history of Nebraska.” While the state boasts about film legends Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, Harold Lloyd and Hilary Swank having Nebraska roots “none of them ever to return here to make film here.”
Payne not only came back but prominently featured his hometown in the movies.
A Sample of reviews of Nebraska
“The widescreen monochrome imagery is at once ravishing and melancholy, evoking a host of iconic American still photography (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al.) without calling undue attention to itself.” --Variety
“A strong sense of a vanishing past holds sway over an illusory future in "Nebraska," Alexander Payne’s wryly poignant and potent comic drama about the bereft state of things in America’s oft-vaunted heartland.” --The Hollywood Reporter
“Poignantly, Nebraska examines the impossibility of trying to figure out some profound “truth” about our families. They’re just these strange creatures that we’ll never quite understand—just as we can’t ever get a handle on ourselves.” --Paste Magazine
“Along with hard truths, the movie has a soft heart. Perhaps punches are being pulled, just a little. It doesn't stop Nebraska from being a thoroughly sweet and charming movie, and a reminder of Dern's quality as an actor.” – The Guardian
By sticking with Payne, Biga was able to get a front row seat as he went on to direct Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt in 2001. Nebraska locations were a quirky calling card for Payne in Hollywood. The Omaha office buildings, steak houses, and comfortable neighborhoods made the city as much of a character as Nicholson’s troubled retired insurance company executive.
Biga said it wasn’t until About Schmidt that Payne felt he really captured on screen what makes Omaha distinctive. “It’s very hard for him to describe,” Biga said. “It is a certain demeanor, a certain spirit, a mood, an attitude a vibe that he feels he finally got right with About Schmidt. He told me that he did not feel prepared to leave Nebraska and film someplace else until he got Omaha and Nebraska right.”
To the disappointment of the Nebraska film community, Payne’s next productions went far afield from the Great Plains. Sideways followed a pair of mismatched friends on a wine-tasting road trip in Napa Valley. The Descendants featured George Clooney as a father in Hawaii facing a family crisis. The change in location did nothing to slow Payne’s momentum. Both earned Academy Award nominations and, for small scale dramas, were box office successes.
By choosing Nebraska as his latest project, Payne seemed to be announcing his return to Middle America. When Biga joined the director on location in northeast Nebraska, he found the director calm and confident as ever.
"Why wouldn’t he be confident? He’s at the top of his game,” Biga said. “Arguably he’s as good a film maker as there is today.”
In the film, Bruce Dern portrays a moody old man who thinks he’s the big winner in a million dollar magazine sweepstakes. His son David drives dad from Montana to Lincoln to collect a prize which probably doesn’t exist. Saturday Night Live regular Will Forte was cast as the son. During their Los Angeles interviews Payne told Biga the film became unexpectedly personal, especially details relating to the character David taking care of his aging parent.
“I’m of that age, and everyone I know is of that age where our folks are getting on and need special attention,” Payne said. “We love them to death and they drive us a little crazy. Because of the time of my life it wound up being quite personal and I think that helped the film. It always helps the film if you can put some of yourself in there.”
Over the years, as Biga continued to interview Payne, he saw first-hand how the director’s personal style on the set and in the editing rooms shaped the final product. Payne remains calm, focused and friendly while working with his cast and crew, according to Biga.
When Biga shadowed Payne for a couple of days last spring he watched the final editing, color correction and sound mixing. Little tension was evident. It seemed surprising since they were just days away from shipping the film over to France for its first international preview at Cannes Film Festival.
“Payne has worked with all these people for a very long time, so there is a comfort level,” Biga said. “They can pretty much say anything without offending each other.”
Even so, Biga notices “there is always deference to Payne. There is a professional relationship but there is a personal relationship.”
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the film for Biga, and apparently Payne, is the look of it. The director knew he wanted an “austere” film and to emphasize a bleaker mood, he chose to shoot it in stark and moody black and white.
“He’s giving us something that really is a gift because these images are going to endure,” Biga said.
As the film shot on location in northeast Nebraska, Biga saw a few glimpses of the early footage and said he immediately knew the film’s characters were tied to the landscapes carefully chosen by the director.
“It’s rural, agricultural sweeping kind of landscapes, poetic landscapes, harsh landscapes in many cases,” Biga said “He’s giving us images of places that we have never seen on the big screen before. It’s not chamber of commerce postcard pretty images, but it’s very real. It’s real to what most of Nebraska is.”
Location shooting was also done in Lincoln and Billings, Montana.
When the influential film critics and industry insiders saw Nebraska the movie and Nebraska the state on the screen at Cannes the response was overwhelmingly positive. Bruce Dern won the festival’s best actor prize. The film has its U.S. premiere in November. There is talk it will be an instant contender for the Academy Awards.
“What’s rare about Payne is he hasn’t had any misses yet,” Biga said. “They’ve all been very high quality films, very well received by critics and well received by audiences. Maybe he will have a miss because it happens to everyone, but it hasn’t happened yet and maybe he’ll be that rarest of exceptions.”
CLIP FROM NEBRASKA
Note: Because the clip was released in conjunction with the Cannes Film Festival in France, the subtitles appear in French.