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Alexander Payne feels at home with 'Nebraska'

Film FestivalsArts and CultureCzech RepublicCannes Film FestivalBruce DernWill ForteThe Descendants (movie)

CANNES, France — Writer-director Alexander Payne has been nominated for three screenplay Oscars and has won two. So what did the man responsible for films including "Election," "Sideways" and "The Descendants" feel about working with someone else's script for the first time?

In a word: "relief."

"Writing is wonderful, I've mined some things out of myself, but I'm interested in the art of directing," Payne said here this week, ahead of the festival premiere of "Nebraska," his latest movie. "What I've written has been out of desperation, to have something to direct."

The impressive "Nebraska," starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte and written by Bob Nelson, joins tart-tongued screwball comedy with unexpected poignancy and warmth to remarkable effect. Even more remarkable, given how good the script is, is the fact that Payne has been sitting on the project for nine years.

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"Nebraska," beautifully shot in expressive widescreen black and white by Phedon Papamichael, centers on an aging, dementia-afflicted resident of Billings, Mont., who's convinced he's won $1 million in a sweepstakes and won't be talked out of going to prize headquarters in Omaha to collect. His exasperated son agrees to drive him there, a journey that includes a side trip to the small Nebraska town where his father was born and lived a chunk of his life.

Nelson, a first-time screenwriter, has family roots in Nebraska, and the story resonated with Payne, himself a native of the state.

"Bob is a writer from Snohomish, Wash. — which I like to say because Bob & Ray used to say it — but his parents were from a small town in Nebraska," Payne related over lunch in a quiet hotel dining room, with "Amour" star Emmanuelle Riva at the next table. "Producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa showed [the script] to me, they thought it was probably too small to do myself but wondered if I could recommend another director with a Nebraska connection. I read it and I said, 'How about me?'"

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"Nebraska," which Paramount Pictures will release Nov. 22 in the United States, has some funny and pointed things to say about family, memory and getting old. Payne held off making the film for many years for prosaic reasons — "Shooting in cars is such a drag that I didn't want to follow 'Sideways' with another road picture," he said — but the delay ended up deepening the material for him.

"In the intervening years, my parents have aged, we've all been aging," said Payne, 52. "As a son with two older parents, I was able to draw on some of my own experience. I've lived a lot of the elements in the film — not literally, but the emotions."

(Payne said he did some uncredited work on the script. "In a way, it's the same process of adapting a book," he said. "You get to have dialogue with the author.")

To play the film's obsessive, always difficult father Woody Grant, Payne chose 76-year-old Dern, who is often cast in darker roles. "I like how he looks," the director said. "He could convey both orneriness and sweetness, as well as a certain childlike quality that could come with old age."

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A more unexpected choice was Forte, of "Saturday Night Live" fame, for the straight dramatic role of the son, David Grant. "He sent in a self-recorded audition tape and I liked it very much," Payne said. "I like actors with great comic timing in dramatic parts. He communicates a sweetness, a humanity and a certain amount of damage. You just feel like you went to high school with him."

Certain to make a strong impression is June Squibb, who plays Woody's wife, Kate, an acerbic, exasperated woman who never says anything nicer to anyone than "you dumb cluck."

Squibb, a New York stage actress, portrayed Jack Nicholson's wife in Payne's "About Schmidt," but she was also cast partly thanks to an audition tape. "She did something fantastic on her tape," Payne said. "She played the character two different ways, straight and as a virago." You can guess which version won.

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Payne has never found it a problem to work with actors who have gone over the top in other people's movies. "These guys are pros," he explains, "and the best actors need to know from their director what film they're in. You ask them to do it a certain way and then you edit it. That's why God gave us more takes."

As he's done in his previous movies, Payne and his casting director, John Jackson, also make liberal use of nonprofessionals in key roles, especially when the film gets to Nebraska. "I like to lavish attention on subsidiary characters," Payne said, "and he's my secret weapon."

What Payne also likes is shooting in his home state.

"It interests me," he says with a smile. "It doesn't matter where you set a film so it might as well be a place you know well, so you get the details right. The Czech director Jiri Weiss once said to me, 'Oh my dear, you have Nebraska. It's like having your own little Czech Republic.'"

So it has proved to be, and never more so than with this sparkling new film.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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