As directors go, Alexander Payne has a remarkably solid track record: His last four films – ‘Election,’ ‘About Schmidt,’ ‘Sideways,’ and ‘The Descendants’ – won awards and made money. But, most impressively, they did so by telling stories about unglamorous people slouching toward the indignities of middle age (and beyond) that were somehow still genuine and hilarious. ‘Nebraska,’ his sixth film, stars 77-year-old Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a High Plains codger determined to get himself to Nebraska to collect a million-dollar prize promised to him in a letter from Sweepstakes Marketing. It is shot in a bleak black-and-white and paced in a way that rewards patience. Payne, who is 52 and lives in his hometown of Omaha, calls from a holiday in South America – he was a Latin American history major at Stanford – where he was visiting friends and eating ludicrously well. “Lima is just a constant food orgy,” he says. “I had to check myself into a hospital. It was way too much.” He took a time-out from the gluttony to discuss his new film, the golden age of television, and why he drives a station wagon.
Do you get satisfaction in giving an actor like Bruce Dern a great character to play late in his career? Roles like Woody don’t come around often.
They do on TV. All the adult drama that we used to have in our movies is now on television. Movies are just big blockbuster crap now. They’re cartoons, not adult dramas. You know, every fall there are 10 American movies that come out that are interesting and intelligent. But there’s a ton of great writing on TV. That’s where you have to go for great narrative in the States these days.
Do you find that sad?
It’s just the way it is. But with luck, it won’t be that way forever. I’m often asked, do I want to make the switch to TV, and my answer is resolutely no. I still believe in movies.
Could you have gotten ‘Nebraska’ made earlier in your career?
The tricky part then is the tricky part now, which is making it in black-and-white and with no major stars.
What have you learned about male vanity in making your films?
Someone asked Robert Mitchum, “What’s the difference between actors and actresses?” and he said, “They’re all actresses.”
So how do you combat that?
It all comes down to casting. I try to avoid actors who I think might give me a hard time in any way during shooting. The two big concerns are overall temperament and ability to learn dialogue. There are many actors who have difficulty learning dialogue.
Laura Dern was the star of your first feature, ‘Citizen Ruth.’ Her father, Bruce, is the star of ‘Nebraska.’ Are there any familial similarities?
Oh, yeah. They’ll both do anything you ask them to. Immediately. There is no caviling. They go, “OK, fine,” and then they just do it. No vanity. Nothing. One of the sources of Bruce’s pride is his innate fearlessness. It’s almost the perverse desire to do weird stuff onscreen, which is good for me, the director. It always rubs me the wrong way when they say about actors, “Oh, he’s so brave. It’s such a brave performance.” It’s such horseshit. What’s cool is not bravery; it’s a sense of fun. Like “Oh, jeez, let’s try this and that,” when they have an overarching sense of fun and are not just thinking about how pretty they look.
Your movies explore the indignities of aging and the onset of irrelevance.
Well, in observing the end of life, we can also observe previous phases of life. In other words, you look at the end result and think about everything that led up to that, and certainly the characters I’ve worked with do.
What do you drive?
Currently my two cars in Nebraska are an ’88 Mercury station wagon – it’s a woody – and a ’77 Ranchero with only 25,000 original miles.
Do Ranchero people feel superior to El Camino people?
You really like wagons?
I do. You never know when you have to haul somebody’s shit around.