A Story Years In The Making - Pre Production
"Am I the only sane one in this family?"
-- Kate Grant
Perhaps fittingly, "Nebraska" first began with a real Midwesterner's attempt
to push his boundaries. The Illinois-based sketch comedy writer Bob Nelson
decided to try his hand at writing something closer to the bone. What he lacked
in experience, he made up for with years of watching and observing the kind of
characters he wanted to write about: the amusingly reticent, unpretentious
Midwesterners who might work their whole lives, go to war, raise children and
have their own private struggles without ever telling their stories, not even to
their own kids.
"I just wanted to write a story about real people," Nelson says. "I like
stories that have that real human quality and I wanted to write something about
the joy of living and the sadness that goes with it. I also wanted to write
something that might move people because I've spent ten years writing comedy.
Mostly, I wanted the people in this film to seem so real that you get totally
immersed in their lives."
The truthfulness of Nelson's script for "Nebraska" emerged out of his own
family experiences. "I raided family stories to set up the structure of the
story and then I invented around that," he explains.
Another inspiration for Nelson came from true tales of senior citizens
showing up at publisher clearinghouses ready to claim their sham winnings.
"That's what started me wondering what would happen if your old dad was the guy
insisting that he won," the writer recalls. "What would you do? I thought a
certain kind of son might take him anyway, and that's what started this whole
But what starts out as quixotic quest for a million dollars becomes even more
so a search for something more important to father and son - something akin to
unspoken forgiveness. "David wants to look at his dad as a good man, even though
he has his problems," says Nelson. "And deep inside Woody, he wants to set
things right with his family, even if he has no clue about how to do that."
The potent blend of humor and human need in Nelson's screenplay quickly
attracted the attention of executive producer Julie M. Thompson, with whom he
had worked on a PBS project. "I laughed so much and it was so heartfelt to me,"
Thompson recalls of the script. "Coming from the Midwest myself I totally bought
into these characters."
Thompson was so taken with it, she in turn handed it to producers Albert
Berger and Ron Yerxa, renowned for bring to the fore a string of influential
comedy-dramas, including Payne's "Election," Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris'
"Little Miss Sunshine" and Todd Field's "Little Children." Given the script's
title, Berger and Yerxa immediately thought of Payne, and they sent it to him
almost a decade ago, not long after they had all completed "Election."
"It was such a beautiful story, told with wit and insight, that we
immediately thought of Alexander," recalls Berger. "We had just worked with him
on 'Election' and it was a very successful relationship. At the time, we thought
Alexander might mentor another director on it. He read it very quickly, called
us back and said he had a director in mind and we said, 'Who?' He said, 'Well,
me.' Ron and I were delighted. We couldn't think of a better choice. The only
twist was that he had just made 'About Schmidt' and he was about to start on
The producers were happy to give Payne the room to make the film when he was
ready. "Alexander's films are very distinctive," notes Yerxa. "They are always
filled with big ideas, yet he embeds those ideas in a humorous, surprising
narrative, so that just as you're fully enjoying the entertainment, he hits you
with something fresh about life. 'Nebraska' gave him that kind of material to
work with. It's about a situation in life most of us face when our parents are
getting older. It's about a son trying to make an emotional connection with
someone who seems to be completely closed off - and his discovery that there's
something generous and dignified deep inside his father. How a family comes to
finally express their love for one another is a really attractive theme, both
for us and for Alexander."
Thompson was thrilled. "I knew that Ron and Albert, two producers especially
adept at character driven stories, would really understand this material and
bring it to life. We had the right producers, the right director and we just had
to wait for the right time."
There would indeed be a bit of a wait, but Payne's love of the story never
left his mind, and in the wake of his success with "The Descendants," the
recipient of five Academy Award nominations, he returned at last to tackle it.
Payne always liked that "Nebraska" was a grown-up, unsentimental story, but now
it was even timelier.
"I received this beautiful screenplay 9 years ago, and what appealed to me
then was that it was humorous and melancholy, like life. I also liked that the
writer really lived what happens in this story, so it feels personal," says
Payne. "By the time we made it, all these other things were happening in our
society, and it came to feel like modern Depression-era story. But I think any
film takes on the time in which it is made. The winds of the period blow through
it, whether consciously or unconsciously."
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