Interview by Roger Durling with June Squibb, Will Forte and producers Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa
Durling: Everybody, please welcome producers, Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, and the two stars of the film, June Squibb and Will Forte. (Applause) They came on a road trip all the way from Nebraska to be here with you. Welcome. It is amazing to have you here and quite an honor. Let’s start with Ron and Albert, the producers. You’ve worked with Alexander Payne before, of course, with Election. Tell us about the journey of this new project with Alexander Payne.
Yerxa: First of all I was outside when that was rolling and I came in the back and I had never seen such a rousing response for producers. (Laughter) But maybe that was for you, June and Will. I don’t know. It was about a ten-year journey making this film. We received a spec screenplay that was given to us by a woman who became the executive producer, Julie Thompson. It was by a first-time screenwriter in Seattle who was mainly known for a local sketch comedy show, Almost Live. And it just had a great tone and very dry humor, and obviously it was full of emotion. Even though Alexander worked on it and sharpened some things and thinned out the number of characters who were on the road trip, for instance, it is largely the original screenplay written by Bob Nelson. And we sent it to Alexander just to be kind of a fellow traveler and guide, not to direct. But he called us back and said that he had an idea for a director. He said he would like to do it himself. So that started a very good journey but a long one. Because we set it up at Paramount Classics which then dropped in favor of Paramount Vantage, and then years later that was dropped and we ended up at big Paramount. They financed the film which was really good because they supported the film fully. We didn’t have any interference, and I think everyone was totally thrilled that that is how it ended up.
Berger: Yeah. The one thing about it was that Alexander had just finished About Schmidt, and he was making Sideways when we sent it to him nine years ago. He said he didn’t want to do another road trip movie—that would be three in a row—and he doesn’t like filming in cars. He asked if we would please wait for him to do another movie. We didn’t realize that it was going to take eight years for him to do The Descendants. So that was why we had to wait a long time. But it was worth the wait.
Durling: This movie is so timely with the recession and what is going on economically. Do you think it was fortuitous that you had a ten-year delay?
Berger: Yes, the movie feels very much of the moment, particularly in those small towns in the Midwest. And Bruce and June were the right age, so it all worked out perfectly. You never know. You get frustrated as a producer, waiting and waiting, but really sometimes you are waiting for a good reason. So in this case it worked out. It was the right time to make this movie.
Yerxa: It allowed us to mature too.
Durling: Black and white–was that always Alexander’s idea to do black and white? And how did you feel as producers that this film was going to be done in black and white?
Yerxa: Well, Alexander did say early on when we set it up at Paramount Classics that he wanted to do it in black and white. I guess to be totally candid, we had a little bit of hope that muted color or desaturated color might be just as good. But when it finally came time to present the film to Paramount, they were kind of shocked to hear it. It goes against some of their TV and international deals and output deals. So it created a back and forth of just what level of budget was doable if the film was going to be done in black and white. But Alexander never wavered, and in retrospect we never wavered either. And now sometimes when we see things about making this film that were filmed in color, it seems to take away from the universal timelessness of the film. You know it’s a film that is contemporary but in a way you can put it in a lot of different decades. You know no one has a cell phone and yet it’s obviously 2013. So we think the black and white makes it unique and gives it a specific quality.
Berger: Two of the first things Alexander said after reading the script were that he wanted to do it in black and white and that he saw Bruce Dern in the lead. Over the years, that would shift, but ultimately it ended up right where he thought it would be.
Durling: And it recalls The Last Picture Show. Black and white makes poetry out of the everyday, out of the mundane. It zeros in on the characters as well. It makes you look at things that you normally are not used to looking at.
Yerxa: Yeah, I think he was thinking about The Last Picture Show, about Paper Moon and also a little bit about Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. I think it gives the film an iconic feel. And in many ways, I think this is the movie that he paid most attention to visually. And the work of Phedon Papamichael, our DP, is really excellent in it. We are really happy about the way it turned out.
Durling: So Will, Saturday Night Live and then starring in an indie film by Alexander Payne. I totally see the direct, um…
Forte: The logical progression…
Durling: Yes. (Laughter) How did this happen?
Forte: Uhh… it just kind of came out of nowhere. It was as surprising to me as it probably was to all of you that I got to be in this movie. I read the script and loved it and felt a connection to the character, but I never would have thought I would be able to get the part. But I just figured what the heck, I might as well put myself on tape. I sent it in and didn’t hear anything for four and a half months, so I just assumed that I was right and that I did not get the part. And he liked the tape I guess. After four and a half months he called me in to read the scenes through with him in person. Right there that would have been enough for me–to get some kind of positive feedback from Alexander Payne. I am such a huge fan. And still I just never dreamt that I would be able to be a part of it. And then I found out a month later.
Durling: Your character looks after his father’s dignity. It’s such a complex relationship that you have with Bruce and his character Woody. Can you talk about what it was like to be working with one of the most iconic American actors and about the relationship you had with him? How did you develop it?
Forte: Well it was very intimidating coming in being such a big fan of Bruce Dern and also just knowing all of the people he has worked with and thinking, “I do not want to disappoint him.” So that was in my head. This was such a new experience for me that there were a lot of things going on in my head. Bruce and Alexander were very good about getting me out of my head. June was terrible to me; she was horribly cruel. (Laughter) But Bruce and Alexander were wonderful. They just had a way of making me feel like I was a part of the gang. We had a week of rehearsal before we started production, and June and Bruce and I drove around with Alexander and just went to different locations and got to know each other. We didn’t even put any themes up on their feet. It was all just about getting to know each other as people. And by the time we started, all that stuff that I had thought about was completely gone and we were all just able to focus on the work.
Durling: And June, you worked with Alexander Payne in About Schmidt. You played Jack Nicholson’s wife. But this is quite a departure for you. Right?
Squibb: It is. As Alexander says, it is a bigger part than I had in the other film. And also, she is just such a different woman, you know. And when I read the script, I just thought, “Oh God, I wanna get my hands on that.” Alexander certainly knew my work but they called and said that he wanted to see me right away. I was in New York, so I did what Will did. They asked me if I would put some stuff on tape and I did. The role in About Schmidt was just so far from this woman. You know, there was the question of who is June and could she be both of these ladies.
Durling: And, your character is one of the most um… boldly speaking characters. But what is so terrific about your performance is that you actually believe the things coming out of her mouth… she is so truthful.
Squibb: Oh yes, I don’t think she ever questions what she says. And I think she thinks everybody agrees with her. (Laughter) I mean, she is never wrong. And everybody thinks the same way she does. You know?
Durling: This is for all of you who want to chime in. Alexander Payne has a reputation for being the actor’s director–that he spends so much time with the actors and gets amazing performances out of all you. Can you describe what it was like working with Alexander Payne?
Squibb: Well we worked basically the same way in About Schmidt. He lets you show him in front of the camera what you feel about this woman. He lets you do your work by yourself for a while. And then he starts what he calls “tweaking.” He might throw out “Faster!” “Slower!” “Hot! Hot!” or “Be angry!” He’ll just throw out things, and as an actor you take those things and use what he’s saying to you.
Berger: Yeah, at times he starts talking you through things. Like, I remember, Will, he would tell you to look down at Bruce when he is in the hospital, and he’d say, “This is the man that has been an albatross around your neck for 30 years.” He has a real ability to… almost like a writer painting a picture as you’re going along if you need it. It took me a year to cast this movie so he is very careful in the casting process. Bruce was first in constructing the family and then Will, Bob, and June. He really puts it together in a methodical way.
Durling: Speaking of Bruce, he gave an incredibly challenging performance. He’s at times a curmudgeon, and the next moment he’s so sympathetic. He’s open and then he’s repressed. How did the casting of Bruce come about and how was working with the great Mr. Dern?
Berger: Well as I said, Bruce was the first person Alexander thought of for this part. But then the movie took seven or so years to get going. Ultimately, he ended up offering the part to Gene Hackman, who was in retirement. Gene declined. He didn’t want to read, and he didn’t want to come out of retirement. Alexander had read 100 actors in the next year and ultimately, he went right back to Bruce. Bruce was the next to last one he met with and it sort of convinced him that his instincts were right, that Bruce ultimately was the guy. And you know, Bruce did a remarkable job. Part of his thing is that at times he is kind of in his own world, and at other times he is very clear and sharp. You know that a lot of the people were non-actors in this movie. And so Alexander was working with professionals as well as people who are farmers. You know, it’s an interesting juggling thing to balance all of those performances. But you know, Bruce was right there each and every day and led the way. It was fantastic.
Forte: It was pretty amazing to watch him. Just like June, who is nothing like the character she plays in the movie, he is just the polar opposite. He is somewhat of a chatty Cathy. (Laughter) And he has a million stories and is very vibrant and is just a real character. So, to see him then morph into this man of few words, very gruff, was really amazing. I mean he could just turn it like that. And you know it was just so wonderful to experience. I was nervous going in and he could not have been more patient with me. He was just this wonderful teacher throughout the whole thing. You know I didn’t know that that was going to be the case going in and by the end of it, our relationship as people kind of mirrored the relationship that we had up there. It was just a great experience.
Durling: I read in the production notes that you guys did an actual road trip as a family with Alexander Payne and the three of you, or…?
Squibb: He showed us around when we first got to Nebraska. We had that week that Will talked about when we just sort of got to know each other. And he would show us the different locations, like that house where we had that dinner. We got to go in there and look all over the house. That was kind of the road trip.
Forte: There was that RV that Jack Nicholson drives in About Schmidt. Alexander had bought it after the movie, and after all the principle photography had been done, he had this camera mount on the RV and just strapped a camera to the front, and we drove the actual route from Billings to Lincoln. It was really this wonderful experience because all the pressure was off and you could just spend five or six days with all these people you had become such good friends with, just capturing a lot of those shots that you would see of the car driving through all that landscape.
Berger: So it’s just Bruce and Will and the car and a very small second unit taking that trip at the end.
Durling: And the locations, the towns that we see, it’s another character in this movie. Of course it’s called Nebraska. Can you talk about scouting the locations? Because I had read that Mr. Payne takes a lot of time scouting locations.
Yerxa: Yeah, he did take a lot of time. He made several trips with Phedon Papamichael, the DP, and Dennis Washington, the production designer, and ultimately the bulk of the film—29 days of it–are shot in Nebraska and 5 days in Billings, Montana, and a day in Wyoming and a day at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. But the heart of the scout was going to all these small towns in Nebraska and trying to piece together the community. The way that it worked out is there’s a town called Norfolk which is kind of a mid-sized town where the production was centered. But then, if you made a circle around Norfolk, and one hour’s drive, there were three or four little towns that became the locations. The main town of Hawthorne is a town called Plainview, and that is where the house and a couple of bars were and where he drives through at the end. You know, we weren’t on those scouts but he must have seen hundreds of towns that were small farm towns.
Berger: And, for instance, in that last drive down Main Street and past Uncle Albert, there were parts of that drive that were an hour this way and then Uncle Albert where he’s sitting in front of that house is an hour this way. But the insides of bars were in one town, the outsides were in another, the newspaper office was in another. So he really pieced these things together very carefully and that is what we ended up with.
Durling: The score is an amazing score. It is so lyrical and it captures the time and the relationship. How did that score come about?
Berger: Well that was a really interesting thing. Mark Orton, the composer, is in a band called Tin Hat Trio. And we were temping with Tin Hat music. Alexander was in the process of hiring a composer when he fell in love with the temp music. Ultimately, Alexander asked Mark to recraft the Tin Hat music–some had actually been in another movie. He ended up recrafting it all for this movie. It was a very unusual situation. Then it became a process of whittling the score down so it wasn’t too repetitious. And that was sort of a big wrestling match in post, but ultimately he got it right where he wanted it. You might want to check out Tin Hat’s music and the composer Mark Orton. It’s beautiful and all over this movie, so…
Durling: And June, I have to ask about the scene in the cemetery. Was that scene always in the script and how much fun did you have in the sequence?
Squibb: It was just like that in the script, and I had great fun shooting, but I had a shock because that’s the first scene that I shot. (Laughter) I asked Alexander, “We’re going to shoot that first?” and he said “Yeah.” I said, “It’s hard,” and he said “Oh, we’ll do it!” So we did. But it’s fun. God, that’s fun to do! (Laughter)
Durling: Albert and Ron, Alexander always writes his own scripts. Why do you think that this is one of the rare instances that he shot someone else’s script? What do you think?
Yerxa: We were shocked. We didn’t give it to him to direct it. We thought it would be a lower budget film maybe he would be executive producer, maybe talk to us about some, you know, Midwestern directors. Maybe he knew that we didn’t know. But we were ready to go that direction when a couple of days after we sent it to him we got the surprising phone call that he wanted to direct it himself. And you’re quite right. He’s never done anything… but this script is a lovely, funny, but emotionally kind of poetic script. I am just saying Bob Nelson did a beautiful job and caught the sensibility and so for the first time Alexander embraced directing another person’s script.
Berger: I mean he has two parents that he is very, very close to and I think there was a kind of personal resonance. Plus I think coming from Omaha, he was eager to explore the rest of the state. He had a burning desire to film in Nebraska but he wanted to explore a different aspect of it.
Durling: Yeah, I mean on that note it is gorgeous. It feels very classical, like Homer’s Odyssey. You know they go on this journey, father and son. It has bigger-than-life characters. And I love the fact that Alexander Payne grabs what I call the mundane–these sorts of average people, this bigger scope for us to admire and dwell with.
Durling: The scene where all the families are watching the football game. How was it shooting the scene?
Forte: It was really funny because one of the men was Rance Howard, who is Ron Howard’s father. But then the other main guy who has the car that they’re talking about is a retired farmer who had never acted before. And I think it was like half of the people had never acted before. It’s just the timing that is so wonderful in that. What would happen is we would do the scene and Alexander would say, “OK, now wait a little bit longer in between.” Like it just became this thing, you know, it would just be extending the pauses, extending the beats more so it was fun just to wait for it. Hearing these guys having that interaction was just so fun. Yeah, it was as fun to make as it was to watch.
Yerxa: From a screenwriting point of view, when we first read it ten years ago, that scene had almost no dialogue. “You know those cars will run forever.” It became what people latched onto. It is really the scene that caught this unique sensibility.
Berger: I really like when Bob Odenkirk, when Ross walks in at the end and everybody says “Hi Ross.” They haven’t seen him in 30 years and it’s like, you know…
Durling: Well, I do have to get them to another event. So thank you so much for being here.