Alexander Payne downplays alternate, colour version, of 'Nebraska'

TORONTO - It's not often that an Oscar-winning director makes a film he hopes no one will actually see.

But Alexander Payne admits that's the dismal fate he's wishing upon a colour version of his black-and-white festival smash "Nebraska."

The alternate film only exists because of studio opposition to his more austere, minimalist vision, Payne said Tuesday during a stop in Toronto to promote the film.

The "Sideways" director says he only agreed to make a colour version because he was told it would make it easier to sell the film to some international TV markets.

"To give them credit, the executives I was dealing with claimed, and I believe them, they really did want me to make the film in black and white but the front office had major doubts because of money left on the table — that a black-and-white film seems ghettoized into being artsy-fartsy for the theatre-going viewers," Payne said of his nearly year-long battle to shoot in black and white.

"Specifically what they can point to (is) they have television deals around the world which stipulate, 'only colour.' So they said 'Oh, we're leaving all this money on the table. If we had a black-and-white film we can't make our TV income.' And I said, 'Well, yeah, that's why I'm coming to you with a cheapie film.' And they said, 'Yeah, well, we don't want to make it.'

"Eventually I said, 'I'll even give you a coloured version for those specific TV outlets in Moldova and Sierra Leone and Laos or wherever.' So I made a colour version. I hope no one ever sees it."

The Omaha-bred Payne says the bittersweet dramedy is nevertheless beautiful in colour, but that's "because the film is well shot." The point is, colour "is just not right for this film," he said.

It was screenwriter Bob Nelson's spare script that told him to shoot in black and white, he said.

The tale centres on befuddled senior Woody Grant — Bruce Dern in a role that won him the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival — who insists on travelling from his home in Billings, Mt., to Lincoln, Ne., to cash in what he believes is a winning ticket for a $1-million sweepstakes.

Unable to convince his dad the mailout is simply a marketing ploy, Woody's son David — played by "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Will Forte in a largely straight-man role — reluctantly heads out on the road with the taciturn old man. A pit-stop along the way in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, Ne., quickly spirals into a smalltown circus when Woody's old pals and relatives get wind of his supposed fortune.

"It just felt right," Payne says of lensing the dusty Midwest vistas in black and white, adding that he'd been wanting to make a black-and-white film "pretty much all my life."

"Something about the screenplay, the austerity of it, the austerity of the people and the landscapes it would evoke just like felt black and white to me. And not just black and white, black-and-white scope — Cinemascope, that big, anamorphic widescreen format."

He notes that the 36-day shoot — plus four days of just driving shots — took place amidst ongoing economic malaise in the region, adding to a melancholy nostalgia that pervades the film.

"The film then acquires a kind of Depression-era feel, it's like a modern-day Depression film because of the black-and-white but I wasn't thinking about that before, it just happened because of when we were turning the camera on."

Oscar buzz is already circling the 77-year-old Dern, and Payne gleefully notes the actor is relishing the attention.

"And that's also really endearing about him — I mean he's not playing the, 'Oh, it's just nice to be nominated,' 'Oh, pshaw, pshaw!' No, he actively wants it, he thinks it's wonderful," said Payne, noting that co-star June Squibb, who plays Woody's beleaguered wife, is also garnering well-deserved Oscar buzz.

"The older generation often recognize very honestly that acting is a competitive sport. And the thing is too, he's put in his time — he's been acting for over 50 years professionally and he's only been nominated for an Oscar once. This means something to that guy at this point in his life, it's lovely to watch."

The film features an unusually dramatic turn from Forte but he, too, proved perfect for the role, says Payne.

During a talk with film fans at a special screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox earlier this week, Payne admitted he "never would have thought of Will in a million years" for the role.

But he auditioned and proved to be instantly believable as a man confounded by the sight of his gradually deteriorating father. Plus the film is not without its comic moments, added Payne, who won his second screenwriting Oscar last year for co-writing the dark family dramedy "The Descendants" (the first was for "Sideways").

"I like casting actors with a comic sensibility, with comic chops, in dramatic roles because they know how to keep the role from descending too much into drear," Payne said the next day during an interview at a downtown Toronto hotel.

"He's honest, he's sincere, he's an honest actor, I believe everything that comes out of his mouth when he's acting. Which is what I look for in casting — actors who can make bad dialogue work. ('Sideways' star) Paul Giamatti was a master at that, I could give him anything and he could make it work."

Much of the broader cast is made up of non-actors — retired farmers and older Nebraskans who had never before stepped in front of a camera. Payne says it took him and the casting director about a year to find them through ads on rural radio and small town newspapers.

That further helped establish a strong sense of the location, he notes. The fictional town of Hawthorne where much of the action takes place was inspired by elements from eight other small towns in northeastern Nebraska. It's mostly based on a town called Plainview, Ne., population roughly 1,300.

Returning to his home state to film is always a joy, says Payne, whose main character in 2002's "About Schmidt" is from smalltown Nebraska and whose 1999 high school satire "Election" is set in Omaha.

"People can't believe why would I wish to continue shooting there. And so I have pretentious answers like, 'Do you ask Woody Allen why he wants to shoot in New York? Would you have asked William Faulkner why he continued to work in Oxford, Miss.?" he said.

"You can taste the entire ocean with one drop on your tongue so you can kind of tell any story you want to tell, almost anywhere, and for me I have my own little Czech Republic, which is Nebraska."

"Nebraska" opens this weekend in Toronto before heading to Montreal and Vancouver on Nov. 29; Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria on Dec. 13; and Ottawa and Winnipeg on Dec. 20.