From the red wine wanderings of Sideways to the Hawaiian hues of The Descendants, Alexander Payne has taken audiences to vibrant landscapes and into the lives of colorful and relatable characters in all of his films. In his latest film, Nebraska, Payne offers another vibrant relationship between landscape and character, but this time with the absence of color. “I have always wanted to make a film in black and white. I knew it would have to be a cheapie. When I read the script several years ago I had two thoughts. One was, this should be in black and white. The other was, this would be a great part for Bruce Dern.”
Production became possible several years and an entire film after first reading the script. “I was finishing Sideways when I saw the screenplay. I didn’t want to follow up one road trip movie with another,” said Payne. “I didn’t know it was going to take so long between Sideways and The Descendants. Once I was finishing The Descendants, I dove right into this.”
Producer Albert Berger expressed being both surprised and enchanted by the interest Payne took in the film when approached nearly 10 years ago. “We had no idea he would respond to someone else’s writing. We thought to go to him as executive producer and perhaps he would mentor a younger director and we could make a smaller Sundance scale movie,” Berger shared. “He read the script and really surprised us and said, ‘I have an idea about a director – I’d like to direct it.’ We waited our turn and here we are.”
Along for the black-and-white drive from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska are Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and David Grant (Will Forte), each chasing a fortune, whether literal or metaphorical, not obtainable through what seem the obvious paths before them. Dern and Forte, including cast mates June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk, were carefully selected to capture the film’s tone which was detectable even on the page. “When I got the material, I saw immediately it was all on the page. It didn’t need any embroidery from me,” said Dern.
Squibb relished early exploration of Kate Grant, David’s shamelessly blunt mother, saying she appreciated “The fact that she says whatever she thinks, no filter at all. It was like each page was better than the last.” The role of David afforded Forte the pleasure of exploring new territory. “You think you know which direction you’re headed in,” said Forte. “I love comedy, it’s so much fun. This was not a planned departure into drama. I loved this script and I’m a huge fan of Alexander’s.”
Dern and cast praised Payne’s method of allowing time for emotion to evolve within each scene. “He said, ‘during the course of this film, don’t show us anything. Let us find it,’” said Dern. “That’s when I knew, for the first time in my career, I had a partner, a teammate and a coach – somebody that was going to do exactly what we needed to do, somebody who will leave the camera enough time to watch the character develop.”
“In the shot design, Alexander came to me and said, ‘we really want to do a lot of scenes that play with minimal coverage,’ which underlines the slower pace,” recalled director of photography Phedon Papamichael. “There are a lot of scenes that play in a one-er, so that allows also the compositions and audiences to have time. You can take in the details of the frame and we’re not forcing people to look at specific things.”
Payne wanted pace and composition to be inspired by the roads and residences experienced by Woody and David in the film, all of which were shot on location. “Alexander picked me up in Billings and we drove the whole trip, just the two of us. We weren’t looking specifically for locations, but for me to get an impression of the land and to roll into towns and go down Main Street. That was a big part of the initial image-making process.” Papamichael used a unique vehicle to capture the vast landscapes, fitting for a road trip film and unique to the Payne peripheral. “Alexander has a motorhome he purchased for About Schmidt. We mounted the camera on the front of the motorhome, on a remote head, so we were driving and providing Kevin with hours and hours of beautiful footage.”
To do Nebraska in black and white, Papamichael considered both the film and digital options. “Originally, we wanted to go with black-and-white film stock,” said Papamichael. “When we did our first tests we used a 5222 Kodak black-and-white stock as a reference look. We were also told we needed to have a color version of the film available as well.” The requirement of having a color version available lead Papamichael to the ARRI Alexa and his contacts at Technicolor. “We ended up with a digital camera for various reasons. We shot on anamorphic Panavision C-series lenses. They’re not as fast so we wanted the extra speed of the digital camera, also knowing that in all the car shots Alexander and I would be stuck in the trunk,” explained Papamichael. After testing with the Alexa, a side-by-side comparison of black-and-white stock to Alexa footage was done at Technicolor to reveal the look they decided to employ. The Alexa footage was converted to black and white and treated to emulate film. “We added film grain to the digital footage to give it a similar texture to film. I think we’ve been pretty successful at accomplishing that because I got a call from Haskell Wexler, who shot America America, and he asked me what film stock I shot. That was a nice call to get.”
Lighting was approached with a minimalist mindset to deliver a more realistic look and allow the existing lights of the small town to motivate. “A lot of it was done without lighting. The night driving scenes had almost no lighting. It gave us an advantage, having the smaller digital camera,” said Papamichael. He used LED bricks to provide a subtle ambiance for the night driving scenes. “We did have street lights that we placed and augmented,” he explained, adding that little else was needed to achieve their intended look.
Editing took an approach similar to cinematography regarding coverage to evoke intended tone. Editor Kevin Tent employed single-shot coverage to present many scenes, with long dissolve transitions emphasizing the vast landscapes captured by Papamichael. “Tone is tricky, but I think what we did and what he (Payne) always fights for is to have enough time for tonal changes to happen,” said Tent. “You don’t rush things too quick because the audience can’t adjust too quickly to those tonal shifts.” Tent is no stranger to presenting Payne, having edited nearly all of his films including Sideways and The Descendants. “The script that we started with was very tight, so that allows time for it to breathe. All the scenes can breathe and the transitions can breathe.” Arriving at the film’s pace took careful balancing and consideration. “We wanted to be elegant and graceful in all our cutting places but we wanted to keep it moving so it doesn’t become so slow that people lose their interest.” Dissolve transitions provided a relationship between characters and landscapes, a method used to explore the effects of time on life. “It was fun to build these dissolve sequences with the foreground action and the negative space of shots. The shots themselves lent us the possibilities of some of these beautiful dissolves.”
Nebraska is currently in theaters and has been nominated for five Golden Globes.