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Directors on Their Teams: Alexander Payne on ‘Nebraska’

Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” has been racking up awards and nominations in the past two weeks, which is a long-delayed payoff for his work. The filmmaker waited nine years to film the script, and spent a year in planning before “Nebraska” went into official pre-production. He worked with scripter Bob Nelson, and spent much of that year in casting and driving around the state with the design team “to get the right look.” He and his team had to train their eyes about how various tones and textures look in black and white. They shot the film for $13.5 million, 36 days principal photography. Payne says, “I hope the picture does some business, not just for its own sake, but so other filmmakers can shoot in black and white. Every time you do something outside the box, you want it to do well, for the sake of other filmmakers.”

Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael

We shot two different types of digital (tests) and two types of video, plus trying color stock printed black and white. We found that shooting digitally offers the best opportunity for a ‘filmic’ look, ironically enough. He and I watched about 10 black-and-white movies together, about half of them in Cinemascope, because this was my first Cinemascope movie. We didn’t focus so much on the early studio films, because the film stock was different and those films were very lit. We started in the ’50s, when people shot using natural light: ‘Sweet Smell of Success,’ ‘Tarnished Angels,’ ‘Hud’ and ‘Seconds’ — a lot of James Wong Howe — the two Bogdanovich films, ‘Paper Moon’ and ‘Last Picture Show,’ early Jarmusch, ‘Manhattan.’ And I’d say to him, ‘I like this, don’t like that, let’s go for that type of contrast, let’s go for this kind of texture,’ that type of stuff.

Production Designer: Dennis Washington

It was my first time working with a very experienced production designer named Dennis Washington. He began with John Huston. He’s done a lot of big, big movies. He knew my desire to have ‘vividly captured banality,’ as I like to call it. We want things to look like real life, not like they look in a movie — but in a vivid way, if that makes sense. He learned the aesthetic I wanted from dialog with me, and he learned how to work in black and white. And it’s wonderful to work with a very experienced person when you’re on a low-budget film, because they have a large bag of tricks to make things look great when you don’t have much money to work with.

Costumes: Wendy Chuck

She had to teach herself and me about texture. For example, Woody (the Bruce Dern character) would have undershirt on, but it’s more interesting in black and white to make it a waffle pattern, little things like that.

Editor: Kevin Tent

For me, the editing room is the promised land. After the pain of the screenplay, and the physical exhaustion and constant ego-stroking of production, then you get to the promised land. With Kevin Tent, shorter is better. If it were up to him, every movie would be three minutes long. I always say it has to be at least 90 minutes, it’s in my contract. (laughs)

Script: Bob Nelson

He’s from Washington but his parents are from Nebraska. We ended up shooting in a town not far from where his folks are from. I read the script nine years ago, I asked him to do one pass, with some changes. But I knew I would have to do some writing myself, to bevel some edges and add some personal touches. But it didn’t change enough that I thought I should pursue screen credit, not at all. It was always about serving his screenplay.

Casting Director: John Jackson

My secret weapon! I began work a year before pre-production began, and we began casting a year in advance. It’s one thing to find the leads, but it’s another to find those other people, the non-actors. You have to make sure they’re ‘bullet-proof,’ so they’re good, real, authentic; they’ve never been in front of a camera before and you need to be sure they won’t freak out when we start shooting. Usually in films, you have a Hollywood or New York-based person to cast the leads, a second person who’s location casting director and then a third person for extras. I wanted one person to do all of it. The day before shooting a scene, we were hand-picking the extras. It’s such an important thing, casting, making sure everyone is vivid. The lead actors have to act a little flatter, in the way that people are in real life, not too dramatic. The goal is to make sure we’re all in the same movie. I don’t pat myself on the back much but I can say I am proud of how well the non-actors and seasoned professionals are all in the same movie, so that the texture of reality is pretty uniform. That’s my job.

Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa

They have a wonderful eye for material. They brought the script, Once the ball started rolling, they knew their job is to support that. And they’re funny, they’re cheerful, they’re great.

Exec Music Producer: Richard Ford

During editing, you use temp music but in this case, the ‘temp’ became ‘perm.’ We just fell in love with it. In some cases it was music used in other movies, then he made some new music. Richard Ford worked with composer Mark Orton to get the music just right for this film. He’s become another indispensable part of my team.

Directors on Their Teams runs Monday through Friday. Coming Monday: Ron Howard on “Rush.”

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