Alexander Payne's latest film materializes in tiny Nebraska town -
Published Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 12:30 am / Updated at 7:17 am
Alexander Payne's latest film materializes in tiny Nebraska town

PLAINVIEW, Neb. — “Today's gonna be great. A rough-and-tumble day. This is the old man's first time in his hometown after many years, and his son's first time since he was a kid.”

On a gray, chilly morning in tiny Plainview, film director Alexander Payne sets the scene and describes the filming day ahead.

Plainview, population 1,246, is the main stand-in for fictional Hawthorne, Neb., in the Omaha native's sixth feature, “Nebraska.” It's the fourth movie he's filmed in his home state, his first in black-and-white.

Brimming with energy, Payne has a big smile on his face. Any day filming is a great day for Payne. Who cares that he's wearing a hooded parka over a jacket, and nylon pants over his jeans to ward off the chill.

“The old man,” a boozy hardhead named Woody Grant, is the central character of this father-son road picture. Woody, played by Bruce Dern, is convinced he's won a $1 million sweepstakes prize. He's headed from Bozeman, Mont., to Lincoln to claim it. On the way, they land in Hawthorne.

His son, played by Will Forte, has a strained relationship with Woody but is more or less forced to join him on the trip to try to keep him out of trouble.

At 10 a.m. call time, having already commuted from their beds 35 miles away in Norfolk, about 90 crew members wolf down last-minute breakfasts from the movie caterer's incredible spread in Plainview's Legion Hall.

Steaming coffee in hand, they bundle up and stroll a couple blocks down the town's main drag, Locust Avenue, to set up the day's first shot.

Yesterday filming ended well after 10 p.m. with the aftermath of a bar fight involving Woody's old nemesis, played by Stacy Keach. A tavern in Hooper, Neb., played the bar's interior. Fat's Lounge in Plainview, renamed Blinker's for the movie, is the exterior.

Today begins with Woody and son strolling up Locust, taking in the town. A working rhythm sets in for a series of five shots that will follow the pair for two blocks.

Camera, sound and lighting setup come first. Even on a daylight exterior shot, large reflective canvases, smaller white-board rectangles and, in some cases, supplemental lights are used on this overcast day. Stand-ins move in place of the stars while the equipment is set.

“This is hideous,” Payne teases his crew, smiling as he looks through his viewfinder. A pickup is blocking the view of Locust. It's quickly moved. A set dresser shakes leaves onto the curb from a black trash bag.

When all is ready, the actors materialize. A Jeep delivers Dern, who's wearing a black down coat that sweeps the ground to keep him warm between takes.

“I went home so happy,” Payne says of yesterday's filming as he greets Dern with a handshake to start the day. “Thank you for last night.”

Around 11, filming begins. The same audibles precede each take. “Rolling.” “Speed.” A clapboard snaps. “(Camera) A only, mark.”

Finally, from Payne, “Action.”

Dern and Forte walk away from the camera, wordlessly crossing the street. “Cut.”

Back they come and do it again. And again. And again, as Payne asks for small adjustments. Walk slower. Try hands in your pockets. Look around.

When Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael are satisfied, it's on to the second setup, a tracking shot on the sidewalk as the actors now walk toward the camera. People causing troublesome reflections of crew and bystanders in storefront windows are shooed away. For each take, a pickup is repositioned to roll by in the background.

Five takes later, a small parade of carts moves camera, sound equipment, electronics and more up the street again for a third shot, this time from behind a large farm implement in an alley, serving as foreground to the actors' stroll. The crew adjusts the camera level higher. More leaves are strewn about. More takes.

As the fourth shot is set up, Payne points out businesses across the street in the background.

“This is a mix of found objects and make believe,” he explains. “That insurance office is real. So is the newspaper office, but we renamed it the Hawthorne Republican.”

An empty building next door has a fresh-painted (but carefully aged) facade, turned into a tanning salon. In the window, a typical Payne joke in neon letters: “Farmer's Tan Special! $12.95.”

A sign in front of a bank has a plastic panel broken out. Below the gaping frame, a lettering grid says, “See Us Fo Your Home Loan.”

“That was just like that,” Payne says of the missing R. Foreground and background for each shot involve a hundred little details like this — what to use, what to change.

Payne notices everything. When a cement truck pulls up at the gas station, he dispatches an aide to pay the trucker to stay put so it will be in the background of the next shot.

“We tried to avoid older towns that were too gussied up,” explains production designer Dennis Washington. “We wanted it to look a little bit stopped in time, even though you know it's today. If we've done our work well, you won't notice what we've done. It keeps the same flavor of the town.”

Payne is more direct on the town ambience he wants: “Kinda half dead, half alive.”

At 12:30 p.m., after the 90-minute stroll that will take about a minute onscreen, everything shifts to a house four blocks away, on Plum Street. Peeling paint, an octagonal turret and a sagging wraparound porch distinguish the aged structure. A bit of rot is visible. A set dresser paints over the porch's white with a dirty wash. Payne explains that bright white doesn't film well.

In the movie, this is the home of Woody's brother, played by director Ron Howard's father, Rance.

Rance isn't needed today. Payne is shooting actors playing his character's two adult sons as they chat about cars with their cousin (Forte) on the porch. The humorous exchange makes Payne laugh aloud as he watches the film monitor.

Then a kid rides up on a bike and wants to get Woody's picture for the local paper.

In moviemaking terms, this turns into five setups, multiple takes of each shot, and three-plus hours of steady work. One setup, for example, is simply Woody facing the camera, posing for the newspaper photo.

Dern wants Woody to take off his glasses, but Payne says no.

“You'll look too much like handsome Bruce Dern,” he says.

Payne likes to have choices when editing. His gentle coaching brings him a variety of shots.

“Try to work yourself into what Woody thinks is a proper smile,” he tells Dern. One smile is too nice. Another too cadaverous. Another take has no smile at all. Too much, too dead, head straight, chin down.

A bit before 4 p.m., Payne is satisfied with the sequence at the house, and dinner break is called. Caterers have been circulating all day with cups of hot soup, bags of popcorn, sandwiches for those who need a pick-me-up. But this is the only meal break in a long day, and everyone heads to the warmth of the Legion Hall and the buffet line.

Payne knows it would be nice to use local caterers, but “they have to feed 110 people with a wide variety of courses very quickly. It takes specialists. An army marches on its ... .” He leaves stomach unsaid for you to think about.

Around any table, crew members are as likely to hail from New Orleans or Omaha as from California. Many, from producers to cinematographer, logistics to the set's still photographer, have worked with Payne before.

“This is one of those shoots you don't want to end,” says one member of the props crew. The working atmosphere feels relaxed. Dern and his daughter — actress Laura Dern, who's visiting the set for the day — eat with everyone else, and people circulate among the tables chatting.

As darkness falls, the action returns to Blinker's tavern, where Woody and son will have a moment of crisis and connection over the course of four more camera setups, each with four or five takes. Payne loves the first take of a key exchange between them, but they shoot several more

The town fire whistle blows at 6 p.m., as it does every day, which gives sound boom operator Jonathan Fuh a chance to tease the head of the sound crew, Jose Antonio Garcia, who sits behind a control board with headphones on.

“Immigration!” Fuh cries in mock horror, as if the whistle signals a bust that his boss will get caught up in. Both burst out laughing before Garcia suddenly turns stone-faced. “Not funny!” he cries back in mock indignation. They've been working together on film sets for 23 years, including four Payne pictures.

Behind Garcia's chair, inside Four Corners Country Store, owner Carolyn Smith has a picture window on the action. She and husband Bob have a little pizza party with friends, pulling up chairs in the dark (no interior lights allowed) to watch Hollywood's show. They invite Forte into the warmth between takes. He's just getting over the flu, and he thanks them, shaking hands all around.

At about 8:30 p.m. three final setups commence around the corner in front of D&K Lanes. The restaurant side is full of rubberneckers, hoping to see somebody who's somebody. They're not disappointed, as Payne, Dern and Forte all duck inside for a bit of warmth while they wait on the crew.

Forte poses for photos with a waitress. A young man whose friend in Wahoo wants to make movies bends Payne's ear. Both give autographs.

As Dern walks in, a local asks loudly, “Who the hell is that?” A woman nearby whispers the answer as Dern smiles broadly.

“Maybe he'll tell me what he really thinks of me,” Dern cracks.

By 9:15 p.m., they're all back outside. Cameras roll in a wide shot as Woody and his son search the ground for a lost item.

One last setup is ready just before 9:30 p.m., and for the first time all day, Payne is satisfied after just one take. “Great week, everyone,” he says loudly, and applause breaks out. “Wrap, wrap, wrap,” someone chants.

In less than a minute, the vans taking everyone back to Norfolk are warmed up and ready for passengers.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1269,

Contact the writer: Bob Fischbach    |   402-444-1269

Bob reviews movies and local theater productions and writes stories about those topics, as well.

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