You might think it's a fairly big deal when a guy from Omaha's movie happens to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival. I did.
So, shortly after Bruce Dern won best actor at Cannes on May 26 for his performance in director Alexander Payne's movie “Nebraska,” I reached out to Payne, hoping for a couple quick anecdotes from the French Riviera.
Payne begged off, saying his head was spinning, he was exhausted from the whirl of activity leading up to the win, and he wanted a little down time in Paris. He promised to call soon.
Fair enough. Late last week, en route to his childhood home near 52nd and Farnam Streets, Payne made good on his promise. He said he'd just gotten into Omaha the night before “on the nonstop from Paris.” It was classic Payne humor, delivered deadpan without a hint of sarcasm.
So how did he feel about the response to “Nebraska,” his sixth feature film, at Cannes?
“In general, it felt good,” he said. “We had a nice standing ovation, as (The World-Herald) reported. On the other hand, there have been films I didn't like much that got standing ovations at Cannes, so I have to take it with a grain of salt.”
He also acknowledged “a few naysayers, as there always are,” among the early reviews.
Asked the most meaningful compliment he had gotten on the movie, he didn't name-drop until pressed.
“Spielberg told me he liked it,” he said. But he quickly added that director Steven Spielberg was chairman of the Cannes Film Festival jury, so he had to watch “Nebraska.” And the kind words came amid a crowd of people.
The comments Payne most took to heart came from people he didn't know.
“It's nice when people stop you on the street and say they were touched, that it reminded them of their own relationship with their father,” Payne said. “'It made me think of my own parents.' That's very nice.”
“Nebraska” is a father-son road-trip movie. Dern plays Woody Grant, an aging, cantankerous boozer who is failing a bit mentally. He's convinced he has won the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes and insists on traveling from Bozeman, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to claim his winnings. Son David, played by Will Forte, is forced to accompany his father, if only to try to keep him out of trouble.
En route, they visit their home stomping ground, fictional Hawthorne, Neb. Small towns around Norfolk, Neb., stood in for various parts of Hawthorne when Payne filmed the movie last October and November.
Payne, 52, was born and raised in Omaha. His own parents, George and Peggy, are aging. There is some emotional resonance, if indirect, between the movie and Payne's life.
Was he surprised by the warm reception at Cannes?
“You never know,” he said. “We had been working on the film up till the last minute. We put the finishing touches on it Friday night, May 17, and we flew to France on the 19th. We showed up with what we used to call a wet print in the old days (before digital), when the film had just come out of the development solution.”
Payne hadn't had a movie at Cannes since “About Schmidt” in 2002, though he served on its jury just last year.
“I wasn't even sure this one could be ready in time. Then suddenly, around Easter — American Easter, that is, not Greek (Payne's heritage is Greek on his father's side) — my editor (Kevin Tent) and I looked at each other and found we were farther down the trail than we thought.”
He called Paramount, the studio backing the film, and asked its blessing. Then he called the director of the Cannes Film Festival.
“He said, 'You have about 10 days to get it to me.' We worked hard and showed him the film on April 15. They announced (the lineup) on the 18th. We got in just under the wire.”
Why the extra effort to get into Cannes?
“It's the attitude of Cannes toward cinema. The French really do still, in general and at the film festival in particular, have a very reverent attitude toward cinema.”
When he goes to Paris, Payne said, he doesn't run to the Louvre. He finds out what titles are screening and goes to the movies.
“There's a wonderful film culture there. Cannes still is first among equals in that top run of film festivals, along with Venice and Berlin. It has that mystique.”
Besides, he said, he's always had a really good time there. “Pretty town, pretty time of year. And the entire film world is there, from the ultraglamorous to the nitty gritty of people trying to get fairly lousy action films made. They're there trolling for money. So it's the most glamorous to the most vulgar, and all together they give the film world its vitality.”
Was he surprised when Dern won best actor?
“I kinda thought if the film would get any award, best actor might be a contender, since his performance had received such good reviews. I'm thrilled, in that it's a recognition of the film as a whole, embodied by Bruce's performance.”
Dern left Cannes the day before the award ceremony. Payne accepted on his behalf.
“But I know he's thrilled to have this type of recognition in the third act of his career.”
Will Payne be making changes to “Nebraska” before its U.S. release Nov. 22?
“Yeah, I go back to L.A. Monday morning. I've got a little nipping and tucking to do, mostly finishing the sound work. I'm hoping to do an event related to the film in Omaha in November to benefit Film Streams.”