As promised, I present to you the interview I did with “Nebraska” screenwriter Bob Nelson for the Press & Dakotan:
Despite what you might have heard, Bob Nelson really does like Midwesterners.
The Yankton-born screenwriter of the new motion picture “Nebraska” was moved to Washington by his parents within weeks of his birth. However, he returned to Hartington, Neb., and Wausa, Neb., during his youth to visit family and grew fond of the Great Plains.
So why is there any question of Nelson’s affection for the people of this region?
Amid the critical praise for “Nebraska” and speculation that Nelson could be nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay, a line of criticism has emerged accusing Nelson and director Alexander Payne, who still maintains a home in Omaha, Neb., of making fun of their Midwest characters.
In the film, a father (Woody, played by Dern) and his estranged son (David, played by Forte) travel together from Montana to Nebraska after Woody becomes convinced he has won a $1 million sweepstakes prize.
Take, for example, this summation of “Nebraska” by Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York: “For the most part, I found Alexander Payne’s American heartland drama, ‘Nebraska,’ a rank exercise in hicksploitation sentimentalism.”
Richard Corliss of Time wrote: “You have to wonder, though, whether either Montanans or Nebraskans would warm to Payne’s group portrait, which veers between social satire and deadpan contempt.”
Nelson took issue with such criticism in a recent email interview with the Press & Dakotan.
“I think those reviewers are much more condescending toward Midwesterners than anything they mistakenly believe Alexander is doing in ‘Nebraska’ (and has been criticized for in previous films),” he stated. “It’s as if they feel they have to be the protectors of these poor, simple rural folk being made fun of by Hollywood. If anything, I think Payne is mocking the people who think he’s mocking people. There’s one message I’ve always taken from Payne and Coen brothers movies: There are good and bad and silly and serious people everywhere you go. Whether Alexander is shooting in Nebraska, California or Hawaii, there are going to be smart and stupid characters, evil and good characters — and amazingly, some of them will possess all of those qualities in seemingly contradictory ways, just like real people.”
Based on the criteria of the aforementioned critics, Nelson said the inhabitants of Manhattan should be livid at Woody Allen for the movies he’s made that poke fun at them.
“I don’t really know what to say to people who don’t get that Alexander loves these people and doesn’t put himself above them in any way,” he stated. “He knows that they have a sense of humor about their lifestyle in a way that people from the coasts might be lacking of their own and, in fact, ‘Nebraska’ has played great to most of the people of the state so far. My own relatives there had wry and wicked senses of humor.”
One scene that has been mentioned by critics as an example of the disdain Nelson and Payne have for Midwesterners involves a group of men silently watching a game on television.
“There’s a long shot of the extended family gawking like lobotomy patients at a sports game,” wrote A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club. Corliss entertainingly described it as a group of men “wordlessly watching a baseball game as if auditioning for a reality show based on Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic.’”
In fact, the scene was inspired by a real-life experience Nelson had while visiting his family in Nebraska.
“What I see is several men who worked hard all their lives and gave up their bodies to put food on our tables,” he said. “The fact that they’re not jabbering every minute while watching TV is just a different way of being, not a character flaw. And it is somewhat humorous to watch — just as watching a bunch of elites from the coasts watching TV and yammering away trying to be clever every minute would be somewhat humorous to portray.”
Nelson said some reviews have also claimed that the story makes Midwesterners look greedy and envious.
“That says a lot about those reviewers’ perception, as there is only one townsfolk who wants a cut (of Woody’s supposed sweepstakes winnings),” he stated. “Most of the others are kind, intelligent and very happy for Woody. And out of all the kin at the family gathering, only four of them ask for a handout.
“It’s amazing to me how people perceive things so differently,” Nelson continued. “Personally, I don’t know how someone can watch the entire film and not realize the tremendous love and respect that Alexander, and I, have for these characters, even the ones with faults — which is to say, all of us.”
“Nebraska” did get a positive review from one of the most important critics in Nelson’s life — his mother.
“My mom loved it,” he said. “I had warned her about some language, so the first thing she said as she turned to me in the Chinese Theatre (where the film premiered in Los Angeles) was, ‘I didn’t think there was that much swearing.’ But she liked the old-fashioned story, loved the acting and has been a big Alexander Payne fan since spending a few days on set with him.”
For those who have seen the movie, she plays the character of “Woman #1 Going to the Salad Bar” in the karaoke scene.
“I think she nailed it,” Nelson added.
Payne’s finished film closely reflects the look and feel Nelson had in his head while writing “Nebraska.”
“I listened to a lot of Emmylou Harris during the writing process, particularly her spare but very emotional albums ‘Wrecking Ball’ and ‘Red Dirt Girl,’ in which she has a lot of songs about regret and the human condition — the need to communicate, to feel needed and loved,” Nelson said. “I think Alexander captured those notions and themes I was aiming for very well.”
Nelson said the overall response to “Nebraska” has exceeded his expectations.
“The reviews are even better than I’d hoped, and so many people have told me what an impact it had on them — from laughter to tears,” he stated. “I cherish that.
“Another wonderful part of this whole journey was sharing it with my mom — from taking her to the set for a week to taking her to Los Angeles for the Chinese Theatre premiere. She even walked the red carpet with me.”
Nelson hopes the success of “Nebraska” will help him get financing for other projects. For example, he wants to direct a screenplay he wrote called “The Tribe,” which has “Community” and “Talk Soup” star Joel McHale attached to it.
“Just this week, I put out another original script for me to direct called ‘The Confirmation,’ which could be done on a smaller budget than ‘The Tribe,’” Nelson said. “So I’ve got two scripts out there, and will spend the winter writing another.”