‘Nebraska’ in a Great State for Awards

Nebraska Alexander Payne

It’s Huskers Week in Hollywood as “Nebraska” was the centerpiece of multiple Q&A sessions, Bruce Dern presented a Hamilton Behind the Camera Award to d.p. Phedon Papamichael, and Alexander Payne met with the media, including Variety, in advance of the film’s Friday opening.

The big takeaway: Dern is the centerpiece of the hoopla, but the film is far from a one-man show.

It’s a contender for best film, director, screenplay (Bob Nelson), lead actor for Dern, supporting turns by Will Forte and June Squibb and all below the line work. The film, in glorious black and white, should be seen on the bigscreen to get full impact, but it will still play well on screeners.

Monday morning, in a conversation with Variety, Payne praised the collaborative mood of the team, including BTL folks, as well as the working-together combo of veteran thesps and first-time actors. He said the film created a big learning curve for him and his visual artists (including Papamichael, production designer Williams and costume designer Wendy Chuck), finding out what works in B&W, which is often different from what works in color.

Though Oscar doesn’t have a casting category yet, the guild and SAG Awards voters should take note of the work, as Payne referred to casting director John Jackson as his “secret weapon,” spending a year to find the right actors for lead roles and even carefully hand-picking the extras.

On Sunday night, Paramount hosted a double-bill at the New Beverly of the film with the 1973 “Paper Moon,” another black-&-white odd-couple road trip. After “Nebraska,” Forte and Bob Odenkirk took questions from the audience; clearly the crowd was smitten by the movie because there wasn’t a single question for Odenkirk about “Breaking Bad” or its spinoff.

The two actors joked about how far removed their onscreen parents are from the actors: Dern is “talkative, chatty and energetic,” while Squibb is “a super-sweet woman.” Odenkirk said Payne didn’t give a lot of direction, “but he gave very precise notes” and Forte imitated Payne’s attention to detail about every detail on the set.

Monday night, the AFI Fest gala screening of the pic included a Q&A with Dern. Quentin Tarantino (who directed the actor in “Django Unchained”) introduced some clips and described Dern as a national treasure.

In the Q&A, Dern reminded that he’s a great raconteur, talking about the appeal of the film in the current environment: “With all the technology, I miss the people and Alexander Payne makes movies about people.” He also talked about his 50-plus years in the biz that covers virtually half of Hollywood history. The mainstream press has focused on his work with name directors (Ashby, Hitchcock, Kazan) but he also has worked with iconoclasts including Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Sam Peckinpah and Michael Ritchie (the amazing 1975 “Smile”).

Aside from being an awards contender this year, “Nebraska” is a good candidate for a time capsule. The film depicts America in the 21st century in a way that Hollywood often overlooks, centering on universal conflicts and emotions but set in the specific sensibility of the “flyover” states.

But on Monday night, the film was far from the only contender getting attention. The Weinstein Co.’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” had a premiere, with Zindzi Mandela in attendance, plus events for “12 Years a Slave,” “Saving Mr. Banks” and other pics.

With AFI Fest and American Film Market currently going on, and with the all-important SAG Award voting and Golden Globes deadlines looming, Hollywood is in overdrive.

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