The opening night of the first Middleburg film festival was held at the spectacular new Salamander Resort and Bruce Dern was there to present his new film, “Nebraska,” directed by Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “Election,” “The Descendants”). Dern and the film’s producers answered questions following the screening. They told us it took ten years to get it made. Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the producers, told us that when they received the script from first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson they immediately thought of Alexander Payne and invited him to be executive producer. He said he wanted to direct, but that he had to do another project first, and that turned out to be the multi-year effort on “The Descendants.” They went through several different studios and a budget that “fell through the floor” when they insisted on making it in black and white.
Dern, whose daughter Laura starred in Payne’s first film, “Citizen Ruth,” got the script early and “read it faster than I ever read anything in my life.” Woody, the main character in the film, keeps talking about how much he wants a truck, so Dern sent Payne a red toy truck in a shoebox with a note: “I am Woody.” The character captivated him and he wanted to play it. He said, “It was an at bat for me. I’ve had at bats before, but this one was in the bottom of the ninth.” It was not clear at first that he would get the role. “Every **** in America over 70 they had to look at.”
But then Dern was cast as Woody and he told us how moved he was by what Payne told him. “He said, ‘For the first time in your career, let us do our jobs. Don’t show us anything. Let us find it.’” Payne put his effort into the casting, spending more than a year finding the people, some who had never acted before. Dern got choked up as he described what he said was the hardest scene he had ever filmed, when Woody walks through the now-abandoned house he grew up in. Although, like Woody, he grew up in the Midwest, his background was very different. His family was filled with high achievers in politics, law, and literature and he was told to raise his hand before speaking at dinner because he did not have anything interesting to contribute. Like Woody, he felt a mixture of wistfulness and triumph in thinking about the past.
Dern loved working with Payne, who inspires such loyalty that out of 82 crew members, 47 had been with him on every day of every film he has ever made. “He never gave a specific piece of direction to anyone. When you fall, he goes down where you are, picks you up from the edge, and says, ‘Let’s make magic.’”