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Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska features a critically-acclaimed performance from legendary actor Bruce Dern, but the words he says onscreen were written by first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson.
In fact, Nelson, who came from a sketch comedy background, had never written anything longer than five minutes before he started working on the film’s script more than 10 years ago.
“That was the first challenge, was to try and come up with a story that would last an hour and 45 minutes,” Nelson told The Hollywood Reporter after a screening of Nebraska in New York. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. I hadn’t really learned movie structure yet. So I tried writing and got to page 20 and had to stop for a year, and I had to teach myself how to write a screenplay, and it took me a few months to really bead out a story and characters and plot and write it up.”
Despite his background, Nelson said he wanted to try drama. When he was working on a TV show with his friend Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” one of the producers found out he’d written a script and asked if she could show it to another producer, Ron Yerxa, whom she knew through charity work, Nelson explained.
Even though this was Nelson’s first screenplay, Yerxa and his producing partner Albert Berger were impressed with the tone and approach.
“It has such a unique dry tone, but underneath the humor and the dry wit and very spare, minimalist dialogue was this kind of big, emotional thing … that’s a nice combination for us,” Yerxa told THR.
Berger and Yerxa showed the script to Alexander Payne, whom they’d worked with on Election, in hopes that he might know of an up-and-coming director who’d want to helm the project, Nelson explained. But Payne said he wanted to direct it, saying “but it’s going to be a while,” Nelson recalled. It took more than 10 years for the film to get made, but Payne’s commitment to the project gave Nelson and Yerxa hope that the film would see the light of day.
Now that the film is on the verge of being released in theaters (Paramount is opening it in four theaters on Nov. 15), and is already being talked about as an Oscar contender after playing to great acclaim at various film festivals including Cannes, Nelson marvels at the journey he’s been on.
“When I first started writing this, I was basically unemployed and in my 40s … so to go from that moment, when I first sat down and wrote the scene out, to this, where next week I’m going to the Chinese theater and I’m going to bring my mother down to watch the film for the first time … so all that is just beyond what you can imagine,” Nelson said.
The film also marked a new experience for SNL alum Will Forte in that it wasn’t the sort of broad comedy he’d previously been doing. Still that didn’t affect his desire to do the film.
“I would be a crazy person not to be interested. It was such a beautiful script. I felt a connection to the character. I loved it and immediately wanted to be a part of it. The only question was whether they’d let me be a part of it,” Forte said.
But he was intimidated by working with Dern and Payne, whose work he admired.
“It was very nerve-racking, that period between getting the role and actually starting production,” he said. “And once I got there, to Nebraska, Alexander and Bruce were so wonderful to me, just made me feel like I was part of the team. By the time we actually started day one, I was very comfortable being with everyone and able to get out of my head.”
While he was working with Dern, Forte said he gave him a myriad of advice, including “just find the truth and be truthful in the scene. Just be in the moment.”
“To get that kind of advice from a person like Bruce meant a lot and he was just wonderful to me throughout the whole process, just very patient and nurturing, just a wonderful guide — as was Alexander,” Forte said. “It just turned from a really frightening experience to an experience I’ll never forget.”
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