The Actor's Director - Alexander Payne
"I never knew the son-of-a-bitch even wanted to be a millionaire." -- Kate Grant
Often perceived as an "actor's director," Alexander Payne allows his
actors to strip their performances down to the rawest, essential elements of
comedy, tragedy and humanity. Payne knew that the subtle, emotional story of
"Nebraska" would only succeed if driven by risk-taking, naturalistic
"Alexander is someone who says, go ahead, take risks and I'll catch you,"
says Bruce Dern. "He doesn't want you to act in the conventional sense - he
wants all the characters to become real people. He gets to a level where you are
pouring out what's in your heart - and all the emotions and baggage that come
Payne could also relate to what has become a nearly universal experience in
our aging society: watching one's parents grow older in ways that can be both
confounding and revealing. "As someone with two older parents myself, I was able
to relate to David. I haven't been in his exact situation of course, but I know
those same emotions," he says. "One thing I really liked about the story was
David's wish to give his father some dignity. That theme was important and
personal to me."
And then there is the film's setting in Payne's home state, which he says
just brings him that one step deeper inside the story. "In many ways, this story
could be set anywhere in the U.S., but since it takes place in a state I know
well, it gave me a chance to bring out a lot of details," he explains. "I'm from
Omaha, which is more of a city than where the Grants are from, though, so the
chance to explore rural Nebraska was almost exotic to me."
here was little doubt in anyone's mind that Payne would take the story of the
Grants and make it inimitably his own. "When you see one of Alexander's movies,
you immediately know it couldn't have been directed by anybody else," points out
producer Albert Berger. "He has a unique way of revealing human behavior in all
its warts and all its glory, and he revels in those moments when people are
behaving badly, yet recognizably. All of us see ourselves in these characters."
That relatability in the characters emerges in part because of the way Payne
works with his actors, accompanying them into that still rare territory of
"He reminds me of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra," comments Dern. "He wants
to examine what human beings do and why they do it. He is fascinated by human
behavior and that comes out in the way he directs."
Co-star Stacy Keach points to two key elements that set Payne outside the
mold: "He has tremendous attention to detail and an acute understanding of an
actor's process." Keach continues, "Having been an actor himself, I think
Alexander really understands what actors go through, and also what they are
capable of delivering in terms of showing a variety of colors and different
emotions all in the same moment. That makes him an inspiration."
Adds Will Forte: "Working with Alexander was an amazing experience for me.
From a technical point of view, everything he does is magnificent. But he also
taught me that it's about more than that. It's about building an inclusive,
family atmosphere and about treating people in a way that gives them a
wonderful, exciting environment to work in. The way he works, you can't imagine
why anyone does it any other way. He really helped me to get out of my head
Executive producer George Parra ("Silver Linings Playbook," "Sideways," "The
Descendants"), who has been working with Payne since "Election," and also served
as assistant director on "Nebraska," says that as impressed as he was watching
Payne direct on set, he's even more awed by how audiences respond to the
indelible characters Payne brings to the fore.
"People look forward to his films because he has such a grasp on life's
comedy and tragedy. His comedies are dramatic and vice versa," he summarizes.
"There aren't many directors who can do that in every film."
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