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Drawing from his storied 50-plus years in show business, actor Bruce Dern says he has worked with just a handful of true geniuses — most recently: Alexander Payne.
Dern drew several rounds of applause and big laughs from the press corps Thursday during the official Cannes press conference for Payne’s competition entry, Nebraska, about a father (Dern) and son (Will Forte) who walk from Nebraska to Montana to claim prize money.
“I can say I’ve worked for six geniuses: [Elia] Kazan, Hitchcock, Douglas Trumbull — a lot of people ask about that one, but trust me, he’s a genius — Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, and of course, Alexander Payne,” the 76-year-old actor said.
Dern’s daughter, Laura Dern, was seated among the reporters near the front of the crowd, smiling at her dad and Payne, with whom she worked on his first feature, Citizen Ruth (1996).
That feel-good family vibe carried through the course of the press event.
“I never had much of a relationship with my own father, but at the end of this movie I found my father and that’s him,” Dern senior said, pointing at Payne. “I got that trust to dare to fail.”
Sharing a little of his process, Payne explained: “The two old pros I’ve worked with, Mr. Dern and Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt, 2002), we had a similar way of working. For many weeks before shooting, we would hang out together and talk about everything but the film, so that in the moment of shooting, we can flow.”
The first question addressed to the director broached the issue most buyers in Cannes likely have been wondering about: his choice to shoot Nebraska in black-and-white.
“I wasn’t expecting that question at all,” Payne joked. “Look, it just seemed like the right thing to do for this film.… It’s such a beautiful form that left our cinema for commercial not artistic reasons. This modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being filmed in black-and-white.”
He conceded that it took some discussion with Paramount to get them to agree to let him shoot it in black-and-white. “They said, we want to spend as little as possible, but we want you to have the tools to make a decent film,” Payne said. He added that international TV sales for black-and-white films are often impossible, because most broadcasters only acquire movies in color.
Dern was also effusive, and charmingly familial, in his praise of working with Will Forte, for whom the film marks something of a career transition, from Saturday Night Live skit comedy to Payne’s brand of high art-house dramedy.
“Nicholson is the best partner I ever had in a movie, but Will is right on his shoulder, because of all the support he gave me over those weeks. If I could hook him and Laura up, it’d be perfect,” he said, sending his daughter into fits of laughter. “Because at the end of the movie I felt like I had a son.”
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