'Hey, can I give you a ride?' Director Alexander Payne gets back to road movies with 'Nebraska'

Alexander Payne returns to road movies in ‘Nebraska’, but with renewed purpose

Road trips inevitably come up when conversing with the director Alexander Payne. His most celebrated movie, Sideways, sees an odd couple of middle-aged men journey from one Californian vineyard to the next. Jack Nicholson takes to the road in About Schmidt. Payne’s new film, Nebraska, stars Bruce Dern, who won the best actor prize at Cannes for his turn as Woody, an aging Korean war veteran living out his final years in Billings, Montana. When the film starts, the stubborn soul has set off on foot for Lincoln, Nebraska, 900 miles away, to claim a $1m prize promised to him by a piece of junk mail. Eventually, he is driven there by his son, an electronics shop salesman hoping that the trip will help them bond.  

One suspects that Payne would happily have given Woody a lift if he saw the septuagenarian walking alongside the highway. The director regularly picks up hitchhikers. “I pick them up in Hawaii,” he says of the US state that served as the location for his previous film, The Descendants, for which he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. (Before that, Payne had won the same Oscar for Sideways.) “I tell you where else: I live a bit up in the hills of Los Angeles, and I pick up Mexican gardeners and maids who are at the bottom of the hill hitchhiking, or even walking. I stop and say, ‘Hey, can I give you a ride?’ A lot of them are elderly and have taken two buses and still have to trudge up a hill.”

So does he feel a social obligation to pick up those less privileged then himself? “No, they’re just people that need to take a ride.” But a lot of people wouldn’t bother, I say. He smirks at this: “I can’t control what other people do.” Such comments pepper his conversation. It’s easy to see where his characters in the early American Midwest-set films that he wrote, Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt, get their wry sense of humour and sharp retorts. 

The 52-year-old loves jumping in his car and stepping on the gas. “One of the great things to do in America is to take a road trip, avoid the big highways and take the small ones. Go through the towns, catching a lot of the oddball stuff.”

“I road-tripped the shit out of Nebraska, scouting for this film,” he adds. “I scouted for thousands and thousands of miles for over a year. Nebraska is a pretty big state.”

Payne should know, he was born in Omaha; his parents ran the Virginia Restaurant in the largest city in the State. His dark hair and strong handsome features highlight his Greek heritage. His paternal grandfather anglicised his family name from Papadopoulos. But Payne is as closely associated with Nebraska as Scorsese is with New York. No wonder he wanted to name his film in its honour.  

“Making the first three pictures there, I developed a skillset that I was able to take with me to the wine country, and then to Hawaii,” he says. “So I was pleased to go back to Nebraska to shoot. But I wasn’t going back to the city I was from, I was going back to a rural area.” It’s also the first time that he’s made a film about his home state without coming up with the characters himself. The screenplay is by the writer and actor Bob Nelson.

Payne doesn’t take a writing credit, although, he says: “I did do a draft of this screenplay. I devilled the edges, shall I say. The ending is mine.” He then tactfully adds, “It’s been a while, I don’t remember the first ending very well.” 

I comment that, like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, his films, especially this new work, are unusual in not romanticising the attitude and comportment of people in small-town America. He responds: “Well I don’t know if that is different now than at any other time in history or with any other people, unless you go to Bhutan and Nepal where the people are super nice.” Are they? “That’s what they say.”

He adds, “I admire The Last Picture Show very much. I guess it has in common some whiff of small-town decay, but that was a period film set in the Fifties. My one is a contemporary black-and-white film. I think they’re very different movies. There may be something similar about the setting, but that one doesn’t have a lot of laughs in it. Of early Bogdanovich, I’m a bigger fan of Paper Moon. I watch that film about once a year. That’s a great comedy.”

Other films he watches annually are Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail and either of the Charlie Chaplin classics, Modern Times or City Lights. The way he describes these re-watchings highlights his love of cinema: “They are my friends. We all have certain films that are our friends. Films aren’t something that you just see once in your life and then retain the memory. A film is like a painting in your house, a book or a piece of music. It’s a friend for life.”

Payne is a self-proclaimed film buff who sometimes programs for repertory cinemas. As a teenager, he would venture to the nearby University of Nebraska Omaha on a Friday night and watch 16mm prints of second-run foreign films. It’s where he became aware of Federico Fellini, Liliana Cavani and Luis Buñuel.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Payne has a strong desire to make a film outside of America. He admires Wes Anderson for jumping between India, Paris and Berlin. He thinks that such a move might give him impetus to make a completely different film avoiding the themes that often appear in his oeuvre: “I want to do something completely new. I’m interested in the act of directing. I want my films to have something to say, to be personal, or maybe even if I’ve dealt with similar things before, to say them better and do a clearer and more concise job.”

Surely he is being modest here. It’s hard to imagine being able to capture high-school shenanigans better than he does in his second film, Election. Has he cast his eyes back over his own work? “I don’t look at them again. I’m not a huge fan of my own films. I like other peoples’,” he says. “The director I’m least interested in talking about is myself.”

Nebraska deals with the gap between generations. Payne says, “I feel that there was a bigger gap from my generation to our parents than current parents have with their children.” He doesn’t offer an explanation as to why, and when I proffer that it might be because nowadays adults are acting more like kids, he shrugs. “That could be. I don’t know why.”

But he’s more forthcoming when asked, are you a big kid? “Probably, to my detriment. If you have a career in the arts it helps to maintain something of a childlike attitude in order to stay fresh; to stay fun and interesting.”

Long may he revel in being the biggest kid in the playground of cinema.

‘Nebraska’ (15) is on general release

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