RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The tone and pace of "Nebraska," Alexander Payne's latest film, is set from the very beginning. The opening scene - an elderly man, bundled up in a well-worn coat is lumbering down the shoulder of a freeway on the outskirts of Billings, Montana. He could be lost in a dementia-fueled haze or on a clearly defined mission. The truth about that man, Woody Grant, turns out to be a bit of both. Here's director Alexander Payne.
ALEXANDER PAYNE: He's an old coot. And he thinks he has one of those Publisher's Clearing House-type sweepstakes things and mistakenly thinks he's won a million dollars and wishes to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the return address is, to claim his prize.
MARTIN: This character, Woody Grant, is not totally with it but he is stubborn and relentless and eventually he convinces his son David to take him to Nebraska.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")
WILL FORTE: (as David) Listen to me, you didn't win anything. It's a complete scam. So, you gotta stop this, OK?
BRUCE DERN: (as Woody) I'm running out of time.
FORTE: (as David) You don't have a suitcase.
DERN: (as Woody) I'm not staying there.
FORTE: (as David) Dad, I can't let you go.
DERN: (as Woody) It's none of your business.
FORTE: (as David) Yes, it is. I'm your son.
DERN: (as Woody) Then why don't you take me?
FORTE: (as David) I can't just drop everything and drive to Lincoln, Nebraska.
DERN: (as Woody) Oh, what else you got going on?
MARTIN: So, father and son head off but before they get to Lincoln, they are waylaid in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne. The former auto mechanic-turned-alleged millionaire quickly becomes a local sensation.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Everybody's saying how Woody Grant's a millionaire. Well, that's the most exciting news around here for ages.
MARTIN: Alexander Payne is himself a Nebraskan and he says that's part of the reason he was drawn to the script. This is the first movie he's directed that he hasn't also written.
PAYNE: It reached me because it was called "Nebraska," and I'm kind of the go-to Nebraska guy. But beyond that superficial connection of the title, I found that I liked very much the deadpan sense of humor, I liked the austerity of the story. And also, I mean, yes, I'm a Nebraskan but I'm from Omaha and often we Omahans don't know a lot about the rest of our state. So, for me, it was a wonderful opportunity to get out there in the more rural areas and spend some time.
MARTIN: Woody ends up spending a lot of time in this small town in Nebraska that feels just like it's dying in a lot of ways. What did you want to say by making Woody...
PAYNE: It's not a question of what I wanted to say but it's a matter of showing what's there. Small towns in many areas - not just in the Midwest - decreased in population as young people moved to the cities. And on top of some decay of small towns in general was added the aspect of meager economic times, and I think that shows up in the movie. And then add to that the fact that the movie is shot in black and white, the film acquires a certain modern-day depression-era feel.
MARTIN: Was that a tough or challenging line to walk, how you made sure you're treating the story and the experience with respect and also finding the humor in it?
PAYNE: I don't know if it's hard or difficult but it's what I had to do, I think. That was my role as the person who selected this story. I mean, I see it as a nice little comedy - a melancholy comedy, but a comedy nonetheless. But still to infuse all the characters with - I hate to say humanity - but to suggest that everyone who appears on screen has a life outside of the scenes in which he or she appears.
MARTIN: So many of these scenes, especially the ones that are full of tension and emotion, there's not a lot going on verbally. They're very short conversations, really curt responses between the characters. How do you direct those moments?
PAYNE: Don't forget that the cinema resists dialogue. I mean, nobody wants a movie that's too talky, plus these characters are pretty darn laconic to begin with. I prefer - actually, when I watch the movie screened, I prefer it when it's silent. I actually like, even though there's not a whole lot of dialogue in it to begin with, I even prefer it when they're not talking at all. I preferred the silences in the film.
MARTIN: Why do you like that?
PAYNE: Why do people have to talk in order to be understood? I'm a big fan of silent film and not to say that there wasn't dialogue visually being expressed and, of course, intertitle cards. But as talky as my movies can be, really, I'm more interested in gesture and expression and visual storytelling.
MARTIN: Alexander Payne. His newest film is called "Nebraska." He spoke to us from our studios at NPR West. Mr. Payne, thanks so much for taking the time.
PAYNE: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.