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Alexander Payne Goes Home in Nebraska

Nebraska, the highly anticipated new film of  the American director of Greek descent Alexander Payne, hits the theaters on Nov. 15. His black-and-white road movie narrates the story between a father and his son. Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern having won the lottery, reunites with his son David (Will Forte) and together they cross the Midwest in order to claim the money.
In an interview with The National Herald, the acclaimed director of such introspective and dark humor, satirical films as Sideways, The Descendants, About Schmidt and Election, talks about his choices for subjects and how hed like to be known as a great director, not just compared to them.
The son of Greek immigrants (his grandfather changed the surname from Papadopoulos) is getting great reviews for his new film.

TNH: In Nebraska on the one hand you go back to your roots exploring the complications of everyday life, while on the other you write down the relationships among a father and a son, the typical conflict. Essentially, what was your inspiration for your film?

AP: “I didnt have an inspiration for the film because I did not write it. This is the first screenplay that Ive directed that I did  not originate. Yes I rewrote it, before shooting to make it more personal to me, but my initial inspiration as always is simply to make a film.
I am very interested in the act of making a film. This screenplay reached me for a very simple reason. Im from Nebraska and the script is called Nebraska. But I very much liked the sense of humor and yes the father-son relationship was interesting to me, possibly because like other people at my age,
I’m going through issues of aging parents and sometimes, not sometime, all the time crazy aging parents so I was able to inform the script and the film with some personal experience. You see thats a better answer that I gave you the other day.”

TNH: We had spoken with Alexander Payne in the middle of October as he was driving from Los Angeles to Omaha, his birthplace and where he spends most of his time. He was going back home to catch up with his parents as he told us.
In the meantime he had heard the tragic news early on the morning about the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas as he brought up the subject. He sounded very concerned and sincerely interested about the situation in Greece. Accidentally though, that interview was not recorded. When we called him next week and asked him if we could do the interview again, he accepted without any hesitation and with a disarming sense of humor.

TNH:/There is a sense of destiny, a sort of image trap, as it were, in the black-and-white film. Also in your films there is a hint of irony balancing the drama. Could you comment on that?

AP: “Your question is very interesting and very strange to me because I have never thought that life has a greater sense of destiny in black and white..(laughs) than it does in color, Ive never thought of that. And as for the second part, well all my films have I think drama and irony.
I think the tone changes, as its a different movie from Sideways and a different movie from The Descendants and a different movie from Election, but still made by the same guy, and what I like is to make dramatic situations funny. But maybe its no coincidence but maybe it is, I am of Greek family and these two masks, one comedy one tragedy I think someone should wear them at the same time, I dont think they are exclusive. I think they should go together.”

TNH: In The Descendants the characters were living in a so-called paradise, in Hawaii. How would you describe the setting of Nebraska ?

AP: Austere. In English means more, if you know the word barren, without beautiful details, like very dry … the opposite of Hawaii.” (He seemed to be familiar with the Greek roots of the word austere (αυστηρός) and its meaning, as he explained us that he is currently learning Greek.)

TNH: Is there any artistic connection between yours films and Hitchcock’s films?

AP:: No. (Both laughing).

TNH: The first time we spoke he had reached the same conclusion, explaining us that the only possible connection one could find was Bruce Dern. Earlier this year the veteran actor staring in Nebraska won the Best Actor Award in the Cannes Film Festival. In the past Bruce Dern has collaborated apart from Hitchcock with many great directors like Elia Kazan and Hal Ashby to name few.

TNH: What about the sense of humor?

AP: No and as I told you the other day, I am happy to always be compared to great directors. I was at a film festival in July in Bologna having a public interview and the fellow who runs the Cinematec in Helsinki Finland, compared my work to Antonioni and I thought this is fantastic. At least I am being compared to great directors of, and not compared or not being asked if there is influence of the great directors of the past, nor the mediocre directors of the present.

TNH: Who would expect though to watch Jack Nicholson as a weary retired widower in About Schmidt, or George Clooney playing the role of a cheated husband?

AP: Actually when I cast Jack Nicholson as an old man, I mean he was the best actor for the part and the only guy at that age that could bring me financing for the movie. And George Clooney, you know, I never say, Oh heres George Clooney doing this and it would be interesting to use him in a totally different role. I think only in terms of the character. George Clooney at the moment.
(Suddenly the line drops and after a second we are calling Alexander again. In a self-sarcastic tone he says “Anyway I said something brilliant that I cannot remember.”)

TNH: Your point of view about music in general and especially in your films?

AP: I like it.

TNH: What about the way you use it in your films?

AP: Oh I like it too.(Both laughing). “Look, Im a film maker in 193..eh, 2013 a contemporary film maker but I am still trying to make classical films and I like older movies. Movies are so different now in general, that to try to make a classical film is almost a radical act, almost a subversive act.
I remember when I was on a jury in Cannes last year and we gave a special prize to the Ken Loach film about whiskey (Angels Share). For Ken Loach it’s a very commercial film. Its a comedy, very standard story, silly at times, very traditionally directed, very classical, and we liked it because finally we could see a movie where we could just sit back and enjoy it.
You know not have to think too much, well what I resent stupid people who say, “When I see a movie I dont want to think I well, not about not thinking, just enjoying a good story. In general narrative film should be entertaining and accessible. Not too intellectual, not too in love with its own style.
Film should be fun and entertaining you know. You can still express almost anything you want, while keeping your film not too long, even if its ten hours, the length doesnt matter, but not too long for what it is. So I think in which respect to music, that I use music very classically. A theme for the one character a theme for another character, developing those themes, given what the dramatic or comic action is of the film, of the scene and I like melodic film I like operas where you can hum the music later and whistle it. And similarly in film I like melodic soundtracks.

TNH: Are you taking part in the Thessaloniki Film Festival this year?

AP: Yes I am President of the jury and showing my film Nebraska. I will stay in Athens to visit my relatives for a few days and I will go to Thessaloniki probably by car,  so as to have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Greeces magnificent landscape.”

TNH: After the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (Nov. 1-10) Alexander Payne will be in Los Angeles for the official release of Nebraska on November 15. When we commented that film critics believe that Nebraska is probably his best film so far, Alexander noted in a light-hearted way that, “I hope there is nothing wrong with my previous films or for the ones I intend to do in the future”.

So, we grasp the chance to ask him if he has any plans after Nebraska’s official release. “To go out to dinner,” he replies again in a light mood, and as our conversation concludes he reveals that, “I have some ideas but nothing that I am being able to discuss right now”.

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