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Director Alexander Payne On Mining Every Film For Comic Potential

Payne tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he first read Nebraska -- a film about an old man who is beginning to show signs of dementia -- as a comedy "with moments of gravity." Payne also directed Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants.




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December 2, 2013

Guest: Alexander Payne

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Alexander Payne, directed and co-wrote the films "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.

His new film "Nebraska" stars Bruce Dern, who won the Best Actor Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his performance. "Nebraska" just received six Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Feature and Best Director.

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 that he's won a million dollars. He's convinced that all he needs to do to collect his money is show up at the address in Lincoln, Nebraska that's mentioned in the mailing. That won't be easy, because he lives in Billings, Montana, and can no longer drive. So he starts walking.

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.


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.

GROSS: 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: You thought it would be a good premise for a comedy. The film is kind of a comedy, but it's kind of not a comedy, too. It's like both, like several of your films. It's a combination of comedy and just a movie with a lot of heart and deep emotion, with characters who don't necessarily know how to express emotion.

PAYNE: But I approach them all as comedies, even "The Descendents," to some degree. But this one really - I mean, when I was reading this script, I read it as a comedy. Oh, this'll be funny. This'll be fun to direct. This'll be a comedy -but then with moments of gravity or realism to anchor it in our world. But I'm thinking more about the comic potential.

GROSS: The journey that they go on to, quote, like, "redeem" the sweepstakes certificate, which the son knows is just a scam, it becomes this, like, opportunity for the son to better know his father, to the extent that the father is capable of revealing anything about himself. There's a really nice scene in a bar between the father and the son early in the movie.

And the father's, like, a real drinker, and he's acting like he's really not, but he still is. And the son's girlfriend, his live-in girlfriend, has just walked out on him, because he was unwilling to actually commit. And she wants to, like, either, look, we're on or we're off. Which is it? Make up your mind. So she's just walked out.

So the son's unhappy about that. He's sitting at the bar with his father, trying to communicate with him. And here's an excerpt of that scene.


FORTE: (As David) I didn't tell you that Noelle(ph) and I broke up.

DERN: (As Woody) Who?

FORTE: (As David) Noelle, you know, the girl I've been living with for the past two years? She moved out. We broke up. Maybe I should've asked her to get married. I don't know. I just, just never felt sure, you know what I mean? I mean, how are you supposed to know when you're sure? Are you sure? How did you and mom end up getting married?

DERN: (As Woody) She wanted to.

FORTE: (As David) And you didn't?

DERN: (As Woody) I figured: What the hell?

FORTE: (As David) Are you ever sorry you married her?

DERN: (As Woody) All the time. It could've been worse.

FORTE: (As David) Well, you must've been in love, at least at first.

DERN: (As Woody) It never came up.


PAYNE: That line always gets a big laugh, are you ever sorry you married her, yeah all the time. Somehow audiences think that's really funny.

GROSS: I think it's even funnier that it never came up.

PAYNE: Never came up, yeah.

GROSS: Because the Bruce Dern character, the father, is so uncommunicative in this, and he's a man with - if he has an inner life, he's unable to express anything about it. And for a son who's trying to get to know him, it's, like, it's impossible. It's like talking to an inanimate object sometimes. I mean, he just won't express himself.

PAYNE: I think many of us have experiences with fathers who are there, they're loving, they're nice, but somehow they're on another planet. And you wonder your whole life: What is that planet that my father is on?

GROSS: Which the son learns about through other people, in part...


GROSS: the movie. Was your father like that? Was your father communicative?

PAYNE: At once communicative and unknowable. I mean, he's still alive, and he's still communicative - well, less communicative now, he's a little bit older.

GROSS: He's like 96, isn't he?

PAYNE: North of that.



PAYNE: Yeah. My father's 98.

GROSS: Whoa.

PAYNE: But always lovely, but still - and I'm not alone, and maybe it's a Midwestern thing, too, on top of fathers in general, but a little bit just unknowable on some level. Or maybe there's some dynamic between children and fathers, which contributes to the children feeling their fathers are unknowable.

GROSS: Is that one of the things that drew you to this script?

PAYNE: No, I just thought it would make a nice little comedy.

GROSS: You're sticking to that line.


PAYNE: Well, it's true. 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, oh, this could work. This scene could hold. This could be funny. This rhythm is off. Let's - you know, I'm just thinking about it more mechanically. And after the film is over, then I have a greater sense of what the themes are.

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. Another thing is, in a film, maybe there's a little bit of some sort of American critique contained there. I don't know. 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: So I have to ask you, there is a son 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: So moving along with the casting, Will Forte was really a revelation to me. You know, in all honesty, I can't say I remember a lot of his characters on "Saturday Night Live." He was terrific in it, and he looks - like throughout the movie, he looks like somebody who is very competent on a very functional level in terms of, like, he can do his job, he can drive the car, he can take his father where he wants to. But he has no idea where he is in his life. He's lost.

And he kind of knows it and kind of doesn't and is kind of powerless about what he should do in terms of a direction with his life. That's kind of - I think that's why his girlfriend leaves, because he won't even have a direction within the relationship. What did you see in Will Forte that made you think he could display all that silently, just through his face on camera?

PAYNE: From the first time I watched his audition tape, I just believed him. What I'm thinking all the time while casting and while directing is do I believe it. When I'm in an audition, I just think oh, do I believe this person. And while directing, after I say action, I kind of mentally wish away the camera and the boom microphone and the technicians, and I pretend I'm just, you know, I'm not looking at a monitor, I'm right by camera, and I'm watching the actors just asking myself do I believe this, if this were really happening.

There was just something about him that I recognized. He is - I won't say I exactly have an alter-ego in the film, but if I do, it's he.

GROSS: I think of him as the star of the film, actually, really because he is the one who, you know, does the kind of, like, growing and changing thing.

PAYNE: Yes, yes.

GROSS: He's the one who - we're really seeing it more through his eyes than anybody else's.

PAYNE: He's kind of Marilyn on "The Munsters," too, the one normal one among the family, amid the freak show.


GROSS: Right, right, right, right, right.

PAYNE: I have said this before, forgive me for repeating myself, but he just, he reminds me of someone I might bump into in Omaha, whom I went to high school with. And I thought if I have that impression, then maybe some viewers will, too.

I just believed him. I never would have thought about casting him ever. It never would've occurred to me. But I liked his audition tape. And then he came in to audition personally, and I liked him in person, and I thought this is the guy.

GROSS: And you thought of the whole film as a comedy. I think you mentioned that.


PAYNE: Yes, but I didn't cast him because necessarily because he's a comic, or has until now been seen as a comic actor. I mean, now of course I see him as an actor, equally adept at comedy and drama. And in fact danger in hiring some funny men or skit-trained comics is - there are two dangers.

One is if they're not doing something funny, why look at them. That's in the case of some of them. You really want them to do their funny thing, or else how interesting really are they in dramatic parts. And the flip side is even if they may be interesting in dramatic parts, sometimes if they smell comedy, they have to play it in a certain way, and I didn't want that, either.

And Will is neither of those. I find him terribly interesting and lovely, human. And I think those qualities that he has, sincerity and honesty, he's just a good soul. Those characteristics come through onscreen.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alexander Payne. He directed and co-wrote the new movie "Nebraska." He also directed "The Descendents," "Sideways," "About Schmidt." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alexander Payne. He directed and co-wrote the new movie "Nebraska," also directed "About Schmidt," "Sideways" and "The Descendents."

So I have to compliment you on casting Will Forte's girlfriend in the movie because she's, you know, a fairly large young woman. And usually if the girlfriend is supposed to be plain in a movie, what happens is a very beautiful actress is given less makeup and plain clothes, and that passes as an average-looking person.

And she gives - it's a really brief performance. It's a really good performance. And she's just, you know, convincing as a person.

PAYNE: Yes, and I had worked with her before in "Sideways." She plays a waitress toward the end of the picture, with whom Thomas Haden Church's character has a brief affair.

GROSS: Well, I think you have a really good eye for women character actors, and I'm thinking of, you know, the actress who you just mentioned, June Squibb, who plays the mother in "Nebraska" and also Margo Martindale, who was in "Paris, je t'aime" is just...

PAYNE: My favorite.

GROSS: She is wonderful. And, you know, especially like if you're a little bit large as a woman, also as a man, I think a lot of the characters you get are - they're mocked. They're mocked for their weight. And you don't do that. I mean, you cast people who look like real people, and you give them really interesting roles.

PAYNE: And it's been interesting for me to observe that when casting some women of a certain weight, I'm somehow accused of making fun of them merely by including them in the film. And that amazes me, that merely by choosing someone it brings a certain baggage or something. But - and I'm not thinking about that, and yet I get questions, not many questions, but...

GROSS: You mean like the assumption is you chose this person because they're funny-looking?

PAYNE: Yeah, no, yeah, right. That comes, and I wasn't thinking about that at all.

GROSS: Good.


GROSS: A lot of the people who...

PAYNE: Maybe I should, I don't know.

GROSS: No, no. 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 whom John Jackson(ph), my casting director, and I make a point of finding.

And this one - 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.

GROSS: Really?

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, let me - 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 onset, 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: Alexander Payne will be back in the second half of the film - in the second half of the show. He directed the new film "Nebraska," as well as the films "The Descendents," "Sideways," "Election" and "About Schmidt." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with director Alexander Payne. His new film, "Nebraska," just received six Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Feature and Best Director. The film's star, Bruce Dern, won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Alexander Payne also directed "The Descendants," "Sideways," "Election" and "About Schmidt."

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.


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: 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...

GROSS: Yes...

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: 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...

PAYNE: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...that's responsible for some of the problems they often have in life.

PAYNE: Oh yeah. And I think...

GROSS: But...

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.


GROSS: But anyways, getting back to that idea, knowing that for actors emotions are often very close to the surface, does that mean you have to be really careful in how you interact with them so as not to, you know, unintentionally wound them or throw them off their game?

PAYNE: You mean while working with them or just in general in life?

GROSS: I'll take both.

PAYNE: Well, then they're just depressive to be around, which they can be.


PAYNE: You have to be on eggshells or Ps and Qs all the time, you know, around an actor because you might upset him. I mean how fun is that? No.


GROSS: Is that what it's like for you?

PAYNE: No. I mean I really enjoy working with actors. They're - it's beautiful if not pathetic sometimes. It's beautiful to see how fully they wish to give of themselves. And I've always been confused by people saying of a certain actor's performance, oh, it's so brave. What a brave performance. What I think, that's what they're there to do, they're there to do anything. It's not brave. I think it's the job. And it also should be coming from an attitude of fun and playfulness, and isn't it delightful to be doing this and to be expressing these emotions and going deeply, deeply into who we are. And showing those of us who have less ready access to our emotions, and often have to pay people to help us get in touch with our emotions, to show us what's available, what's beneath the surface. It's beautiful what they do.

GROSS: When I was interviewing Bruce Dern recently about "Nebraska," he said there's a scene where his son, played by Will Forte, convinces him to like go to the home that he grew up in, that the Bruce Dern character grew up in. And the Bruce Dern character is very unemotional. He shows, outside of being grumpy, he shows no emotion. But in going to this house, you could see - his first reaction was like, what for? Why should I go? But once he's there, you could tell he's just experiencing the fact that his father used to whip him. And like, and that this is the place where his two-year-old brother, who slept in the same bed as him, died in bed.

And Bruce Dern said that, you know, in our interview, that what he was thinking about when he was doing that scene was he said the fact that I didn't get any support when I was young, that's what you're seeing. And he also said Alexander Payne didn't know that that's what I was thinking.

Does it matter whether you know it or not?

PAYNE: Hell no. I'm not there to give an acting class. I'm there to make a movie. And I often don't know, nor do I often care to know, really, what the actor is thinking about.

GROSS: Do you want to know a lot about their past or would you just as soon not know and keep the...

PAYNE: About the actor's past?

GROSS: The actor's past.

PAYNE: Why would I want to know about - I mean I'm interested them as people and we're working together. And typically I ask people around me, oh, who are you and where you from and where did you grow up and, you know, those standard questions. I'm interested. So of course I'm interested. But are you wondering if I'm interested so that I could know better what buttons to push in them or where they might be coming from?

GROSS: Well, I know some directors like to do that. Some directors like to work with things like personal things they know about the actor and some directors don't.

PAYNE: I don't really think that way.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PAYNE: I think, I mean my basic direction is: please hit your mark and recite your dialogue exactly as written.


PAYNE: And you think I mean that somewhat facetiously. But actually, my job I feel is basically done - not done, but on the way to being done when I've cast them. And that old cliche is very true, 90 percent of directing is casting, not just the actors, but the technicians, everyone involved in making a film. So in the moment we're doing a scene, and I work with intelligent actors, they know what the heck the scene's about, so - and they know what, without being too result-oriented in their thinking, they know what emotional state the character is in. Sometimes I think that if I get too personal with a direction, you know, try doing this or think about that, I may mar what they're already thinking about.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PAYNE: Like they might be thinking about something else and here I am like waltzing in and trying to give some brilliant emotional methody direction and I might screw 'em up. Yeah, so I'm very careful about that.

GROSS: My guest is director Alexander Payne. His new film is called "Nebraska." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Alexander Payne. He directed and co-wrote the new movie "Nebraska," also directed "About Schmidt," "Sideways" and "The Descendents."

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."


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 heart aches 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?

PAYNE: Yeah.

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.

PAYNE: 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 how they're created. 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. Whatever.

GROSS: Really? In the middle of the scene you're doing that?

PAYNE: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: What if there's supposed to be dialogue?

PAYNE: Well, now if there's dialogue 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: So this is a question from our associate producer Heidi who is a filmmaker. And she is really wondering why you use dissolves sometimes.

PAYNE: What a lovely question. I like dissolves.

GROSS: You should explain what a dissolve is.

PAYNE: A dissolve is a film technique, usually a transition from scene to scene where image A begins to fade out, overlapped with the fade in of image B. And it's a technique which even predates cinema. It comes from magic lantern days when they were doing slide to slide. Rather than having a cut, just a slam, they would do an overlap. It was more pleasing.

Nowadays you don't see too many dissolves in movies. And I never paid attention to when they went out of fashion. And Kevin Tent, my editor, and I think they're beautiful. I happen to be a big fan of Hal Ashby films in the '70s and to my mind, he an ex-editor, was a master of dissolves, and particularly long dissolves.

For me, they lend emotion to a film and there's a kind of a melancholy that comes from them.

GROSS: This is a blending one moment into another.

PAYNE: Yeah. One thing is going away, another thing is coming in. And I can't explain it, but there's something poetic and melancholy about it.

GROSS: My guest is director Alexander Payne. His new film is called "Nebraska." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alexander Payne. He directed and co-wrote the new film "Nebraska." Also directed "About Schmidt," "Sideways," and "The Descendants." So I have another question about "The Descendants." There's a beautiful last scene in "The Descendants." And there's been so much tension in the family. Clooney's wife is in a coma, his two daughters have been really acting up, and he's just in a terrible place.

But in the final scene after the mother has died and George Clooney has grown much closer to the daughters, the final scene is the three of them are sitting in front of the TV sharing some ice cream. They're on a couch together side by side with Clooney in the middle. And one blanket is covering the legs of all three of them. And it's just such an intimate scene. It shows such, like, comfort and physical connection between the three of them.

And it's exactly a scene you can't imagine happening in your movie "Nebraska." The family in "Nebraska," they have no physical contact. They're not the kind of family that touches and hugs and kisses. They'd never be on a couch with a blanket over them, you know. And I guess I'm wondering which was your family closer to when you were growing up?

PAYNE: Well, first of all, let me say that I think in both films, though, to some degree you're seeing families who have little training in saying I love you to one another, find ways to say I love you to one another. That's - and I'm just thinking of that now but that's possibly a similarity between the two endings. My own family was - is, was, is - affectionate and loving but not terribly gooey.

GROSS: Family's at the center of several of your films. I'm interested in your family. I know your grandfather immigrated from Greece, eventually moved to Omaha.

PAYNE: Both did.

GROSS: Both did. OK.

PAYNE: Both grandfathers came from Greece. Three of my four grandparents came from Greece.

GROSS: And one of your grandfathers started what became a big cafe, diner, restaurant.

PAYNE: In Omaha. And the other grandfather had a chain of barbecues in Birmingham, Alabama. So both my grandfathers and my father were restaurant owners.

GROSS: Oh. And you grew up in Omaha. So what was the restaurant in Omaha like?

PAYNE: Yeah. It was - my family had it for 50 years and it had been a 24-hour restaurant for almost 30 years before my grandfather bought it. He bought it in 1920 and ran it till it burned down just shy of its 50th anniversary in 1969.

GROSS: Was it one of those restaurants that has, like, pages and pages of menu and it has everything from, like, omelets to steak to chickens and fish and...

PAYNE: Yeah. Not quite so big but, yeah, steaks, chops, seafood and hot soup.

GROSS: And sandwiches and grilled cheese. And, yeah.

PAYNE: Everything.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PAYNE: And they served up to 3,000 meals a day.

GROSS: Whoa.

PAYNE: It was a real institution in downtown Omaha.

GROSS: Did you eat there a lot?

PAYNE: My family and I used to have dinner there every Thursday as I was growing up.

GROSS: Why Thursday?

PAYNE: I don't know. Just tradition, for some reason.

GROSS: And you were how old when the diner burned down?

PAYNE: Just shy of my 9th birthday.

GROSS: Was it one of those, like, really frightening big fires?

PAYNE: It was. I learned about it in the morning when I was getting dressed for school. I turned on the radio and I heard it on the news. And then I went to go ask my mom about it downstairs in the kitchen and she said, yeah, yeah, yeah, it burned down. Your father's down there now.

GROSS: Wow. So you didn't get to see it burn.

PAYNE: No. It happened in the middle of the night.

GROSS: What's the story behind it? Were you ever told?

PAYNE: They never found out. And we, being Greeks of course, people would say, well, you know, maybe it was for the insurance. When, in fact, it was highly underinsured. They hadn't renewed their insurance in quite a while, as I recall.

GROSS: So was that a frightening thing for you? Like, you're this kid and the family institution, like, burns to the ground and it's not...

PAYNE: Yeah. And seeing my father at home suddenly.

GROSS: Oh, because he was running it by then?

PAYNE: It was a 24-hour restaurant and it's like having a motel. You're married to that - restaurant business is very, very hard. And marriages can suffer because you always have to be there. Because if not, you feel like you're being stolen blind by the help. As I recall - I haven't thought about this in years but sure - it's - yeah.

I guess our family was so closely associated with that restaurant and for many years after, including even today people can meet my father and say, oh, I sure miss the Virginia. That was the name of the restaurant. I sure miss it. So to have something like that part of our identity vanish so quickly was - you say frightening but bizarre.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PAYNE: Startling. My father was around my age, in his early 50s, when that happened. And so how does someone start anew at that age? What does he do?

GROSS: What did he do?

PAYNE: For a couple of years he got a job for Sheraton Hotels as a restaurant consultant and they would fly him to wherever in the world they were building a new Sheraton Hotel. And he would advise them on the layout of the restaurant from a restaurant manager's point of view. Like the waitress station is here with respect to the kitchen, and so many tables over here. Well, really, you'd want to put the waitress station over here. So he wound up traveling around the world for about two years and my mother and I accompanied him. I remember we spent the summer of my 9th year in Lisbon and Madeira.


PAYNE: Where they were building new Sheraton hotels. He was away from home too damn much so he wound up after that getting a federal job as regional field director of the U.S. Department of Commerce for Nebraska and North and South Dakota.

GROSS: So was it reassuring to see his resilience? That this traumatic thing happened and, like, he survived. The family survived.

PAYNE: My father had been working since he was a little boy with a paper route. And he worked his way through Grinnell, through Dartmouth. He went two years to Grinnell and then transferred. He wanted to go to an Ivy League school. He managed the - I forget the name of the restaurant on the campus of Dartmouth College. And served in both wars, had a desk job with the Navy. And was always working. And he didn't retire until he was in his 80s.

GROSS: Do you still love watching movies as much as you used to now that you're making them and now that you can watch a movie now and probably see the work that went into and not just be swept away by it?

PAYNE: When you know the work that goes into it, I think you can have an even deeper appreciation of it. I mean, still, if there's a great movie that I start to - like, for example, I'll start to watch "Seven Samurai" or "Godfather II" or one of those great films and I think now I'm really going to just focus - I've seen it so many times I've got it down pat. I'm just going to watch the technique.

And I always get swept up in it and I, you know. And that means the movie's really good. But at the same time, I can go back mentally and say, well, that effect works because of how amazingly well done such and such a technique was.

GROSS: Alexander Payne, this has been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PAYNE: I feel the same. Thanks a lot, Terry.

GROSS: Alexander Payne directed the new film "Nebraska." You can follow our blog on Tumblr at You'll find staff-curated photos, videos, gifs, interview highlights, and a look into what's happening behind the scenes. There's also a place for you to ask us questions about the show.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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