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'Nebraska's' small-town beginnings

The Alexander Payne movie 'Nebraska' is shown in the town where some of it was shot, with locals playing small roles. The film draws knowing laughs but also a ding for stereotypes.

December 02, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Devin Ratray, left, is Cole, Tim Driscoll is Bart, Rance Howard is Uncle Ray and Mary Louise Wilson is Aunt Martha in "Nebraska."
Devin Ratray, left, is Cole, Tim Driscoll is Bart, Rance Howard is Uncle… (Merie W. Wallace / Paramount…)

NORFOLK, Neb. — One night last year, Rachel Liester was waitressing at a restaurant near this rural town when she received an unusual request. A director was preparing to shoot a movie nearby, and her ticking off of the specials made her sufficiently camera-ready to merit an audition.

Soon after, Liester was reading for the director, who turned out to be Oscar winner Alexander Payne. And when Payne's "Nebraska" — a coming-home father-son dramedy starring Will Forte and Bruce Dern — was released two weeks ago, there Liester was at a critical moment in the film, playing a waitress who keeps a cranky Dern honest.

"I'm not sure what I did well. I think he must have liked how I talked about the meatloaf," said Liester, one of more than a dozen locals — including a laconic barfly, an ER doctor and an Orville Redenbacher look-alike with a penchant for folkisms — to land key roles in the film. All play versions of themselves.

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"Diner" fixed Baltimore in our filmic consciousness; "Singles" made us think about Seattle in a new way. Now "Nebraska" aims to direct our attention toward the Cornhusker State. It's a cinematically underrepresented place that native son Payne explores much more deeply in this film, using a bevy of real people and experiences, than he has in the previous movies — "Election" and "About Schmidt" — that he's set in the state.

The black-and-white, award-contending movie, which has drawn strong reviews and solid art-house box office, could open American filmgoers' eyes to a state they rarely consider — even as it stirs complicated feelings among the people who live here, who are balancing the rush that comes from Hollywood attention with the feeling that this big-screen portrait isn't necessarily the one they might have chosen for themselves.

"It's nice to see Nebraska up there on the screen. Some of it was funny," said John Hoosier, a longtime Norfolk resident who works at the hospital in town, at a screening held here last week for locals.

"But I didn't love everything about it. For example, the two cousins were really stereotypical," he said alluding to a pair of local lunkheads the movie uses for comic effect. One of them, Tim Driscoll, is another non-actor local. Though he works as an electrician in Omaha, Driscoll, with adjustments to his voice and demeanor, can embody a kind of blunt foolishness; he was cast in the part.

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Payne dismissed the notion that people in the state might have an issue with how they're portrayed.

"People want to say it's condescending? Let them say that. This is my love letter to the state of Nebraska," he said.

A family reunion

"Nebraska," which sets much of its action at a family reunion in the fictional-but-archetypal town of Hawthorn, began not with Payne — who grew up in the comparative metropolis of Omaha and now lives there part time — but with screenwriter Bob Nelson.

Nelson was a Seattle-based comedy writer who had worked mainly on a local TV show when, a little more than a decade ago, he decided to pen a screenplay about rural Nebraska. His parents had come from small towns in the state, and he had strong childhood memories of traveling to visit his extended family, which included his father's 16 brothers and sisters.

He wrote the script in part to capture the quirks of small-town life here, particularly as it had transitioned in recent decades from family-owned farms to agribusiness, putting people in economic straits.

But part of it was also an accident. The film's plot turns on Dern's character, a doddering retired mechanic named Woody, persuading his son (Forte) to drive from their home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to claim a mail-order sweepstakes prize Woody believes he's won.

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"Washington state doesn't have headquarters for that kind of thing," Nelson said. "If it did I probably would have set the movie there," he said, laughing. (Woody and his son are then waylaid in Hawthorn, where a dysfunctional-family gathering takes place.)

Nelson drew many details of the story from his own life. His father, who died in the late 1970s, was a functioning alcoholic, similar to Dern's character. A scene in which male relatives sit around watching football, breaking the silence only to utter brief words about cars or driving directions, comes from Nelson's own terse family get-togethers.

That real-world color hasn't gone unnoticed by the locals.

At a reception in Norfolk before the screening, Liester, a part-time waitress, gathered with several hundred locals, Payne and his principal cast to mark the film's return to its roots. The mayor stood up and uttered words one doesn't hear often at a Hollywood premiere. "You look awesome tonight. Northeastern Nebraska," she said, to rousing cheers in the Christmas light-filled ballroom.

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