Despite having great screenplay buzz or talented stars and filmmakers attached, some movies can just never find a way to get made in the Hollywood system. After years and years, most wind up in what’s colloquially called "development hell" where they will spend an eternity in pre-pre-production never taking the necessary steps to actually get done. There are those that escape, however, and in the case of Nebraska, the new film from director Alexander Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson, the final product is worth the wait.
With the film now out in theaters, I recently had the chance to chat with the movie’s screenwriter and dig in deep about the script’s roots and what it took to get the movie made. Read on to find out the initial inspiration behind the story, the actor who Nelson was actually thinking about while creating the lead character played by Bruce Dern, and the new project that he has been developing with Community’s Joel McHale.
This film was in development for a really long time, right?
It’s been a long time since it was optioned and Alexander [Payne] became attached. There wasn’t really much development after that. We just, it was basically waiting for Alexander to find the right time to do it.
What was it like finally getting the chance to see the movie on the big screen?
You know, the first time I saw it on the big screen was at the Cannes Film Festival, so, I mean, when something like that happens, there is the thought in your head that maybe I should just retire now. It’s ridiculous to even think in those terms, that that’s how it would happen. I’m still rather stunned. I was stunned ten years ago when Alexander became attached and now that it’s a reality and it’s going out to theaters, it still seems very unlikely to me. Sometimes I feel like if people are calling to tell me that you’re going around and saying that Alexander Payne directed a film you wrote, then you have to stop saying that, knock it off. I would go, ok, now I get it, but no, it is surreal.
You mentioned that you’d been working on this script for a long time. Where did this project start? What was your initial inspiration for the story?
Well the story started, I’d heard about this actually happening, older people showing up at sweepstakes offices because they were afraid to put their winnings in the mail. So, that actually happened and I was writing and performing on a show in Seattle called Almost Live for ten years and I heard about this towards the end of our run in the late ‘90s and I just had it in the back of my mind that there might be a story there. What do you do if you have a parent who might be entering dementia and insists on doing this and what do you do, but at first I couldn’t get over the hump that if they’re just in the car together driving, that could become pretty tedious, if I make this little independent film that I just couldn’t get past the repetition of the father and son just arguing it out and whatever they learned in that car on the trip. So, it took me a ridiculously long time to come up with the idea of going to the dad’s hometown, and that’s when I really became excited about it because then you can bring in other characters and have a story revealed through them, about the main characters.
The story is very character based and you have a lot of these close relationships between the characters, but at the same time, the dialogue is very curt - it’s very short and to the point. What was the challenge in constructing that kind of dialogue?
Well, I think, for me, I came from a sketch comedy background, so I was used to every word having to count. In three minutes you have to create this world and the characters and then deliver. So in a way, I think that taught me some brevity and in this case, it fit the characters, especially Woody. I brought in and I just saw his son as being confused about who this man is. He grew up with and now is seeing grow older and he still has no idea who he has, so he also, he doesn’t really know what to say to his dad, so in a way they’re not talking much and that’s part of the reason I included the Kate character was to, kind of falling back on my comedy background, I thought I needed to have someone bring some humor in and when I first wrote it, she was just in the first act, but then I thought, I need her in Hawthorne, so whatever I had to do to get her to Hawthorne, and the nice thing about that was that it helped me create that part of the story and it also besides her being the comic relief in Hawthorne, she also becomes a major player in the plot points. So, just going through that whole development process on my own, it all was helpful and Woody is somewhat based on my own father. So, I was able to kind of remember his voice while I was writing it and he didn’t talk a lot, and part of it was, I guess, experiences he had in World War II. They said he came back a little quieter than he left, so that’s where I started.