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Alexander Payne: “There’s always humor to be mined in blindness”

I don’t believe it’s hyperbolic to say that speaking with writer/director Alexander Payne about, of all films, “Nebraska,” is a dream interview. I was born in Payne’s hometown of Omaha, and moved away at age 13. It’s the place I spent my wonder years, and I still have many relatives who never left, some who live in places you’ve probably never visited, or even driven through, with names like Tecumseh and Elkhorn. If you enter a bar, you can be sure there’s a poster or cutout of the obese Cornhusker mascot Herbie Husker posted somewhere, and talk will generally cycle between sports, cars, neighborhood gossip and hunting. Drinking is custom, not vice. This is not a critique of values, education or intelligence. It’s just the way that I know life in Nebraska. And Payne knows it too.

In “Nebraska,” his first film since the award-winning “The Descendants,” Payne strips bare the story of an aged patriarch (Bruce Dern) on a quixotic journey to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes payday. Along for the ride are sons Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, and the hilarious Jane Squibb as Dern’s profane, long-suffering wife.  Mildly derided as “minor Payne” at the Cannes premiere, the film, like “About Schmidt,” may have relatively small stakes in a global sense, but for its characters, they are huge. Payne and I spoke over the phone recently about his casting process, his characters' Midwestern stoicism, and shooting in black-and-white.

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