Whidbey screenwriter nears end of 10-year journey to ‘Nebraska’
An interview with Bob Nelson, the Northwest writer whose screenplay “Nebraska,” written over a decade ago, has finally become a film, directed by Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”).
Seattle Times movie critic
Opens Friday at the Guild 45th. Rated R for some language.
Bob Nelson’s first screenplay, “Nebraska,” was the story of a road trip — and it turned out to have a long road trip of its own. Nelson, a longtime Pacific Northwest resident and veteran of the Seattle sketch-comedy TV series “Almost Live!,” wrote “Nebraska” more than a decade ago, inspired by his relationship with his father and by stories he’d heard about people trying to collect “sweepstakes winnings” in person. Now, it’s finally on screen, filmed by director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) and starring Bruce Dern.
“To me it’s funny,” said Nelson, who lives on Whidbey Island but spoke on the phone last week from New York on a publicity tour for “Nebraska.” “I was on ‘Almost Live!’ for 10 years — you do stuff every week. We did about 30 weeks a year of shows, and you just go, go, go ... and here in the movie business, 10 years on one movie. Quite different, but I’ve enjoyed it.”
The wait for “Nebraska” to get made was long but not particularly suspenseful: Payne, himself a Nebraska native, was attached very early to the project, but chose not to make the film immediately following 2004’s “Sideways” (for which he won a screenwriting Oscar) — he wanted a break from road-trip movies.
“Every year or so, I would just ask the producers, ‘Is Alexander still promising to shoot “Nebraska”?,’ and the answer always came back, ‘Yes,’ ” Nelson said. It was finally shot late last year, in several small Nebraska towns.
In the movie, Dern plays Woody, an elderly Nebraska native living in Montana and set in his ways — so much so that, when he receives a letter in the mail saying he “may have won” a million dollars, he’s determined to head to the Nebraska address on the letter to collect his winnings. His son David (Will Forte) reluctantly agrees to take him, on what turns out to be a journey into Woody’s — and David’s — past.
“When I first sat down to write it, it was like a poem to my father,” said Nelson. “Just kind of a way to think about that relationship.” Nelson’s father, like Woody, worked as a mechanic and “tended to have a drinking problem,” though the on-screen character evolved to be someone different — “my dad was not that crotchety or cantankerous.” But Nelson, whose father grew up on a farm in Nebraska, borrowed on numerous family stories for the screenplay, including a scene in which Woody and David hunt for Woody’s lost false teeth on a railroad track outside a tavern. (Nelson’s father, though, didn’t pop the teeth right back into his mouth as Woody does. “We took them to the dentist.”)
Though Nelson was only present for about a week of the film’s shoot, that became a family affair as well: Nelson’s mother, also a Nebraska native, came with him. She was thrilled to be cast as an extra in a restaurant scene. “Alexander knew she was my mother, so he gave her a little thing to do — walking to the buffet,” said Nelson. “There are two women; she’s Woman Number One. She has three or four seconds.” Look closely and you’ll see Nelson in that scene too, sitting in a booth and applauding a karaoke performer.
Nelson is looking forward to bringing his mother to the red-carpet premiere in Hollywood this month, and he spoke glowingly of seeing “Nebraska” at the Cannes Film Festival last spring — “a dream come true.” But he’s ready to move on to new projects. Since writing “Nebraska” a decade ago and immediately selling it, Nelson has launched a career as a screenwriter, with scripts in development at several studios. (Though he lives full time on Whidbey, he frequently travels to Los Angeles “when I have to,” for meetings.)
Among his upcoming projects are a script at Pixar, an American remake of the French film “Intimate Strangers,” a project with Chris Rock, and a “dramedy” called “The Tribe” to star fellow “Almost Live!” alum Joel McHale. Nelson hopes that the latter, for which they’re working with John Malkovich’s production company, will be his next project to go before the cameras — and will be his directing debut.
“I don’t want to go another 10 years before the second one, if possible,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to get another one made.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org