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Alexander Payne is eager to head back to 'Nebraska'

February 16, 2012 | 12:00 pm

Midwesterner Alexander Payne, whose film "The Descendants" has five Oscar nominations -- including best picture and director-- isn't quite at home on the Hollywood awards circuit
I went to see Alexander Payne the other day, curious to hear how he was holding up after spending the last few months on the awards circuit, touting "The Descendants," which is up for five Oscars, including best picture and best director. Payne is from Omaha and being a Midwesterner, he's a straight talker -- polite but firm.

Knowing he'd probably rather be back in Omaha than out on the hustings in Hollywood, I asked him how he was handling all the attention. "I don't campaign," he answered, sitting in his airy office on the third floor of an old brick building in Santa Monica. "The studio campaigns. I get trotted out to different events and try to appreciate all of the appreciation for the film. I'm very polite to those who say they've enjoyed the film. The only thing that genuinely tires me is the repetition of the same exact question that I've heard all around the world."


Of course, being a snoopy journalist myself, I had to ask -- what question might that be? "George Clooney and I did a Times Talk session with David Carr the other day, and he asked me, 'Why has it been seven years [since you last directed a film]?' And I replied, 'May I direct your attention to a Frank Bruni article from last November that addresses that very issue?'"

As I said: polite, but firm. I figured Payne would be more interested in talking about his upcoming film, "Nebraska," a story about a father-son road trip across the state that he hopes to shoot later this year. I admit to harboring a special fondness for Nebraska, having family roots there myself. My grandfather grew up in Omaha, where his uncle, Julius Meyer, was pals with Sitting Bull and served as an Indian interpreter and trader, running a store called Julius Meyer's Indian Wigwam.

I showed Payne a photo of Uncle Julius from the 1870s, standing with several Sioux outside the Wigwam. "Where was the store?" Payne said, after studying the photo. I told him it was at Farnam and 14th Street. Payne stared at me. "14th and Farnam?" he said incredulously. "That's where I live."

Small world, huh? Payne still spends most of his time in Omaha, where he has a loft apartment on the top floor of an art deco building downtown. It's right across the street from where the Indian Wigwam used to be. To hear Payne tell it, he's eager to shoot another film in Nebraska, where he made many of his earlier movies, including "About Schmidt" and "Election."

He first read the "Nebraska" script, originally written by Bob Nelson, nearly a decade ago. "Election" producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa had shown it to him, asking if he could find a young Nebraskan director who might be right for it. "After I read it, I said, 'What about me?'" Payne recalled. "It's a road-trip film, so I didn't want to do it right away after 'Sideways.' But Albert and Ron were kind enough to wait."

Casting will be tricky, because Payne says the lead roles are very specific. "It's a lot like casting a Mike Leigh film," he said. "The lead is a cranky Midwestern guy. He goes in and out of dementia and cajoles his son to drive with him from his home in Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska, because he thinks he's won a sweepstakes there. I need Henry Fonda when he was a crotchety old [son of a gun]. But he's not available, so I'm looking elsewhere. I always liked the austerity of Fonda's acting, so that's what I'm going for."

When I asked why he wanted to shoot the film in black and white, Payne had a simple answer. "Because it would look so cool. It seems that our politicians see the world in black and white, so why not our artists? Did Woody Allen's 'Manhattan' have to be in black and white? No. But is it fantastic that it was? To see New York like that? Yes!"

He laughs. "I watch 'Paper Moon' about once a year. Black and white is a good thing."

It would be a good thing if Payne ends up winning some awards on Oscar night. His work on "The Descendants" is the most assured directing of his career. But he isn't holding his breath. He's eager to get back behind the camera, especially if it means he can be back spending time in Nebraska. As he put it: "I'm there whenever I don't have to be here."

He hangs on to the old Omaha photos I gave him. Payne is clearly a man who has a strong sense of place. He tells me that his house here in L.A., up in Topanga Canyon, is reputed to have once been the residence of the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen. "I have no evidence to prove it," he quickly adds. "But I will say that when I've been gardening in my backyard, I've often dug up old whisky and beer bottles."

Payne laughs. "I suppose that doesn't prove anything, but it certainly doesn't disprove it either."


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-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Alexander Payne discusses "The Descendants" on a panel at the Pacific Design Center. Credit: Toby Canham / Getty Images

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