How Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ Is a Game Changer

Lost in all the awards madness is that at their core, the Oscars are about honoring the best of the year in film. Alexander Payne's Nebraska certainly qualifies as one of them. The movie is nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture. And while it's not a favorite to win in any category, perhaps it should be because Paramount (a subsidiary of Viacom (NASDAQ: VIA  ) ) allowed for a number of brave (and controversial) decisions that in the end produced a solid film that could pave the way for others down the line.

(Credit: Paramount)

Payne

Alexander Payne isn't a filmmaker who is cut from the same cloth as some of his contemporaries. He isn't afraid to push the limits even if that makes his audience a little uncomfortable at times. Payne is also known for having a few calling cards in his movies such as featuring main characters with a sense of loneliness and being on a quest for some sort of self-fulfillment. He's also set four of his films in his home state, which you could probably guess is Nebraska.

Each of those elements tie into the film Nebraska, a dark comedy about an aging man who along with estranged son embark on a road trip to Nebraska to claim what he believes is a major sweepstakes prize. The concept is intriguing and so are all the elements Payne uses to make the movie stand out. From who he casted to how he shot it, these are choices that would usually get any filmmaker laughed out of a pitch meeting ... and as it turns out that almost included Payne.

(Credit: Paramount)

Black & White

Payne's biggest decision when making Nebraska was to shoot it in black and white, which didn't go over well with Paramount. The studio was adamant this needed to be a color movie for a variety of business reasons. Whether audiences are presumed to be turned off by the "artsy" nature of black and white or because certain networks have it in their contracts that the movies they air be in color, Payne didn't initially win the fight.

While the director has said he did have support from a number of executives, he didn't have enough to change everyone's mind until he showed them how it looked on screen. In order to get the movie made Payne had agree to shoot a version in color as well, specifically for those networks name-dropped as "supposedly" only running color movies. But when the black and white footage was shown, Payne got his way (and is hopeful the color version will be locked away forever).

In a way Paramount was both right and wrong. Black and white movies do turn off certain audiences, but where they misjudged it is that those audiences aren't the kind that are going to go see a movie like Nebraska in the first place. This was never going to be a mass market film like Payne's The Descendants was in 2011. Nebraska was shot on a $12 million production budget and has to date made around $17 million. Shooting it in color likely wouldn't have changed that, in fact it probably would hurt the film artistically as part of its appeal is the simplicity of the black and white look and the beauty of how cinematographer and (Oscar nominee) Phedon Papamichael made it come alive on screen.

(Credit: Paramount)

Woody

The other half of the movie's appeal is its stellar cast led by (now) two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern as Woody. At age 77, Dern isn't your prototypical lead and reportedly the studio also considered actors like Jack Nicholson, Robert Forster, and Robert Duvall for the role (the first two having worked with Payne in the past). Part of the deal executives made with Payne to allow him to shoot in black and white was that he secure a big name actor for the lead .... Dern probably wasn't what they had in mind.

Yet to Payne, Dern was the only actor in mind as Nebraska had been gestating with the director for 10 years, and even back then he had Dern in mind to play Woody. Payne's publicly said the only reason it took so long to make the movie was that he had just done the road-trip movie Sideways and he didn't want to do another road trip film so soon, so he made Descendants first.

Payne's also said that he's glad he waited because casting Dern as Woody 10 years ago would have led to an entirely different performance than the one the actor gave now. It's a valid point especially for a movie about an aging senior citizen. For the record, no matter how old Dern is, he didn't miss a beat; this was an amazing performance that in any other year would have probably netted him a Best Actor win.

That's not to take away from his co-stars though as there's not a mis-casted person in the bunch. From Dern's on-screen wife (and fellow Oscar nominee), the fabulous character actress June Squibb, to Breaking Bad's Bod Odenkirk as the couple's older son to the ultra-talented Stacy Keach as Woody's repulsive former friend, the performances help make this something special.

However the most surprising choice was casting Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte as David, Woody's younger son who agrees to take him to claim his "prize." Forte is a comedic actor whose choice of roles has done little to make anyone believe he could do drama. And yet he was stellar! Forte beat out other actors including Casey Affleck, Paul Rudd, Matthew Modine, and supposedly even Bryan Cranston for the part. While he didn't earn an Oscar nomination, he certainly deserved the consideration.

(Credit: Paramount)

Impact on industry

The moral of the story is that while it is called show "business" for a reason -- the business side often gets in the way. Paramount railed long and hard against Payne's choice to film in black and white and then required that a "name" come on board. Yet it's hard to imagine this movie being successful in color or with any other actors. Sometimes you have to break the mold and let your talent do what it is you actually hired them to do in the first place.

Still Paramount deserves credit because ultimately the studio let Payne make his movie the way he wanted and now they look like trendsetters and have another Oscar nominated drama to add to its ranks. You also can't blame Paramount for being so reluctant at first either as it's a top-tier movie studio that has produced numerous hits ... they know what they are doing.

Yet just as Liam Neeson has turned into a bankable actor star at age 61, things change in this industry, no matter how unlikely some of those changes are. Hopefully some of the industry's other studios will now embrace this new reality as Nebraska's become a certifiable test case in how do things differently and still be successful.


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