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Alexander Payne Reveals What All the Best Actors Know

‘Nebraska’ director talks up black-and-white film and the city of Omaha

Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” is up for Oscar in six categories, all of them big. The filmmaker, who splits his time between L.A. and his native state, spoke with Variety about his upbringing and influences — and about working with Bruce Dern and June Squibb, who’ve been acting since before he was born.

What did you learn about shooting in B&W?
I’ve been looking at black-and-white films my whole life, we all have. It felt comforting to look at the monitor; it felt almost like coming home. Everyone acts so nonplussed about it, but our great film heritage is in black-and-white. I think any filmmaker worth his or her salt aspires to make a black-and-white film at some point in their career.

What did you learn about acting from your stars?
The old pros are my favorite actors to work with, and I’ve been lucky enough in my short career to have had Messrs. Nicholson, (Beau) Bridges, (Robert) Forster, Keach and Dern and now June Squibb in two movies. (She was, briefly, Jack Nicholson’s wife in “About Schmidt.”) They know how to discern what film is being made, in order to be a part of that film and adjust their performance accordingly. It’s often said directors must study actors to know what buttons to push and get the best performance. But the opposite is true. A good film actor must study the director to determine what film is being made and be a part of it.

How much time do you spend in Omaha?
Each year is different. In 2013, I was solidly in L.A. until June. From then on, my home base was here. Although I like my life in Los Angeles, right now I prefer being in Omaha: I have great friends, my parents are here and I’m happy to be around for them and help out. Also, Omaha is blossoming, with flourishing arts, restaurants, hipsters and music. I like witnessing it and being a part of it.

What’s the biggest misperception of the Heartland?
I live in downtown Omaha, which people on the Coast sometimes smirk at. But everywhere is exotic and everything is beautiful if you look at it long enough and with the right generosity of spirit. Omaha in particular — I call it Paris of the Plains — is a very rich city to live in. The other thing: More time is your own. The same slew of errands that cost me 3.5 hours in Los Angeles will cost me 50 minutes in Omaha. I have more time to think, to write; life is simpler here in the best way.

When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
When I was 5 — and when I was 25. At 5, I fell madly in love with movies, and began collecting 8mm prints of old films when I was 8 or 9. As a second-generation Greek from Nebraska, I had no examples around me of a career in the arts, and I certainly had no film connections. (After graduating from Stanford) I applied to five film schools. The moment I received my acceptance letter from UCLA, I knew I had to go; I knew it was the more dangerous path. But I had to try.

Any heroes?
I spent my 20s studying Kurosawa very hard. When I saw “Seven Samurai” in 1982, that pretty much sealed my decision to go to film school. I thought, “I’ll never climb a mountain that high, but what a nice mountain to be on.” Later, I’ve liked Robert Kennedy, during his last two years. His discourse, what he said publicly was beautiful and enlightened. I consider his loss great, if not greater than his brother’s.

Final thoughts?
I finish most interviews thinking I’ve told you nothing enlightening about the film and its deeper meanings; I’m not even sure if I know what they are. But I agree with Antonioni when he said — and forgive me for pretentiously quoting him — “Don’t you realize that anything I have to say will limit rather than enhance your enjoyment of the film?”

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