×

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.

Popular on Variety

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?”

More Film

  • Any Day Now

    New Europe Film Sales Picks up Hamy Ramezan’s ‘Any Day Now’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jan Naszewski’s Warsaw-based sales company has boarded Finnish-Iranian Hamy Ramezan’s debut feature “Any Day Now,” to be shown as a work in progress at Göteborg’s Nordic Film Market, WHICH RUNS Jan 30.-Feb 2. Ramezan’s drama, produced by Aamu Film Company (“The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki”), already enjoys a strong buzz from [...]

  • Liselott Forsman

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Boasts Record Budget for 2020

    As the Nordisk Film & TV Fond prepares to celebrates its 30th anniversary, at this month’s Göteborg Film Festival, CEO Liselott Forsman has outlined her vision for the upcoming yearm which sees the fund boasting a record high budget of NOK 127 million ($12.8 million), up from last year’s total of NOK 97.75 million ($11.4 [...]

  • CNC Chief Outlines Plan to Update

    CNC Chief Outlines Plan to Update French Production Infrastructure

    Speaking at an industry round-table at the Paris-based Production Forum on Thursday, Dominique Boutonnat, president of France’s National Film Board (CNC), announced a new plan to update local production studios in order to make them more internationally competitive. The modest plan, which involves new funding, training sessions and additional research, follows a March 2019 report, [...]

  • Bait

    ‘Bait’ Director Mark Jenkin Sets Next Feature With Film4

    Writer-director Mark Jenkin, whose feature debut “Bait” was nominated for two BAFTAs last week, has set his next project, “Enys Men” (“Stone Island”), with Film4. Jenkin will direct from his own script. Denzil Monk is producing for Bosena. Johnny Fewings is executive producing, with Kate Byers and Linn Waite as associate producers. Film4 will co-finance the [...]

  • CineAsia

    CineAsia Turns its Back on Hong Kong

    CineAsia, the long-running convention for the film exhibition and distribution sectors, has ditched Hong Kong, its home for the past decade. It was forced to cancel the 2019 edition in December, due to the political unrest in the city. New York-based organizer, the Film Expo Group, announced on Friday by email that the 2020 edition [...]

  • Mama Weed

    New Films With Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Omar Sy Unspool at UniFrance Rendez-Vous

    Showcasing the wide scope and many nuances of French comedies, Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Lost Prince,” “Mama Weed” with Isabelle Huppert (pictured), “The Lion” with Dany Boon, and “Welcome to the Jungle” with Catherine Deneuve are having their market premieres at the 22nd edition of the UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in Paris, which [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content