There is No Place Like Nebraska

November 18, 2013

Uncategorized

Wanderlust | A Road Trip Through Alexander Payne’s Nebraska

TRAVEL 

By KURT ANDERSEN

NOVEMBER 15, 2013, 12:51 PM 10 Comments

  • The director Alexander Payne (right) and the novelist Kurt Andersen, both native Nebraskans, take a road trip through their home state. Michael Christopher Brown
  • An abandoned shack in the sleepy town of Inavale (population 117). Michael Christopher Brown
  • There’s little activity in Red Cloud, Neb. — here, a sprinkler on a quiet lawn. Michael Christopher Brown
  • Payne, a history buff, in the former Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank, which now houses memorabilia of the local hero Willa Cather. Michael Christopher Brown
  • A tilled field in Nebraska, which is at the center of America’s breadbasket. Michael Christopher Brown
  • A farmer drives a tractor near Riverton, Neb., a far cry from the bustle of Payne’s Hollywood life. Michael Christopher Brown
  • Andersen and Payne take a stroll through Red Cloud. Michael Christopher Brown
  • Payne’s 1988 Ford Mercury Grand Marquis Colony Park station wagon leaving Red Cloud at dusk. Michael Christopher Brown
  • Payne (left) and Andersen wait for dinner at the Palace Lounge. Michael Christopher Brown
Full Screen

Prev
Prev
Next

 

With the release of his movie ‘Nebraska,’ the director Alexander Payne travels across his home state’s great plains and small towns to discover a place as quirky and authentic as his films.

Among Alexander Payne’s first five feature films, two are stories of men at existential crossroads who embark on road trips, and three are set in Nebraska. His sixth, “Nebraska,” which comes out at the end of the month, is both — two men, father and son, amusingly and movingly working through interior crises as they drive together across Nebraska.

From “Huckleberry Finn” on, in prose and then in film, the road trip has been more and more a go-to narrative spine for great American stories — “Sullivan’s Travels,” “On the Road,” “Travels With Charley,” “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” “Easy Rider,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Badlands,” “Paper Moon,” “Midnight Run,” “Thelma and Louise” and many more.

Yet despite having made three road-trip movies — or by his count, including “The Descendants,” three and a half — “I don’t have any particular fondness for road pictures,” the director tells me from the driver’s seat of his car, going 70. “Shooting in cars is a drag. Shooting in cars is awful.” O.K. . . . but he’s a single guy who owns five automobiles (as well as an R.V.): a 2003 Honda S2000, a 1977 Ford Ranchero, a brand-new top-of-the-line Tesla, a 2004 Audi A6 (which he’s just sold) and the station wagon in which we’re about to start cruising around Nebraska for two days. He just drove here alone from Los Angeles by way of Telluride, 1,770 miles. And he is behind the wheel of his hulking 1988 Ford Mercury Grand Marquis Colony Park as we embark on our journey, me in the shotgun seat.

So he loves driving, then? Not really. “I had to move a car here,” he explains, although driving on an open road like this — we’re heading west out of Omaha into the Plains — is certainly preferable to city driving, “especially in L.A.” He pauses. ” ‘Repo Man’ had that famous line, ‘The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.’ ” When I was a teenager in the early ’70s in Omaha, Friday and Saturday nights were all about cruising the city in cars, searching for . . . whatever. Not so for Alexander Payne in the late ’70s. “No, we mostly got into a basement.”

An abandoned shack in the sleepy town of Inavale (population 117).Michael Christopher BrownAn abandoned shack in the sleepy town of Inavale (population 117).

And unlike me, who went away to college and became a New Yorker, Payne today divides his life between a coastal megalopolis (a house in Topanga Canyon, Calif.) and Omaha (a loft in a renovated 1929 hotel). He’s set four of his six films in Nebraska — “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt” and now “Nebraska,” all deeply observant and slightly melancholy comedies that celebrate and satirize very real-seeming fellow Nebraskans. He even still talks like a Nebraskan, referring to a woman as “a gal,” and beginning a sentence with “Anyhooo . . . ”

“I like being here as it’s blossoming,” he says of Omaha, “witnessing that, being part of it.” He and I are both board members of Film Streams, an Omaha nonprofit cinema that shows first-run independents and classics. “Omaha is the Paris of Nebraska,” he says. Or more precisely, “If Minneapolis is the Seattle of the Midwest, then Omaha is swiftly becoming its Portland. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, tons of good restaurants. It’s fantastic.”

His deep fondness for the non-Parisian rest of Nebraska has come from making films here. “I hadn’t gotten to know the state until recent years, with ‘About Schmidt.’ A great thing about making any movie is that for a couple of months you get to see every sunrise and sunset. And in Nebraska . . . ” he adds, waving toward the infinite green fields and blue skies enveloping us, leaving the rapturous end of the sentence implicit.

“That’s relatively good-looking corn,” he points out. “Last year when we were shooting, it was a drought.” He and his cast (Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk) spent two months filming mostly in Plainview (population 1,246) and other little towns in northeastern Nebraska. “I enjoyed it. The crew got a little restless. They were ready to go home.”

Interstate 80 is how most people cross the state by car, racing, oblivious, but for this trip we stick mainly to two-lane state highways and unpaved county roads. “Why take a road trip,” Payne figures, “if you’re gonna be on the Interstate?”

Payne says, “Morning!” to the dozen cattle grazing near the road. He points out a hawk flying with a snake in its mouth. In Nebraska there are no mountains to gape at, not many lakes, no real forests — just the homely grandeur of an occasional giant concrete grain elevator or small-town water tower.

A farmer drives a tractor near Riverton, Neb., a far cry from the bustle of Payne's Hollywood life.Michael Christopher BrownA farmer drives a tractor near Riverton, Neb., a far cry from the bustle of Payne’s Hollywood life.

Driving through Alma (population 1,333), he spots an old soda fountain and parks the car to take a look, but the place has just closed for the day at 5 o’clock. A couple of freckled boys with bikes greet us. The stranger from Omaha and Los Angeles knows it’s a cliché, but he can’t help himself: “Man, it’s still wholesome here.”

As his films demonstrate, though, he has an eye for the goofy and sad as well as the noble and sweet. “Here’s the breadbasket of America,” he says, back on the road, “and the only vegetables they eat are canned green beans and corn and iceberg lettuce.” He reads a road sign out loud — ” ‘Monsanto Wildlife Preserve.’ Somebody at Monsanto has a sense of humor” — and on one main street full of empty storefronts, he points out the open tanning salon. “All these little towns have tanning salons.” At the gas station near Hampton (population 423), what must be half the town’s female citizens between 55 and 75 are seated around a table, having some kind of meeting. They stop talking as we approach on the way to the bathroom, then fall silent again when we emerge to pay for our gas. They eye us a little suspiciously. That, I say as we walk out, was just like a scene in an Alexander Payne movie.

When we arrive in Cozad (population 3,977), our westernmost stop, Main Street is blocked off. There’s a big hand-painted “GO COZAD” sign. Cheerleaders. A football team. A marching band. Queen’s “We Are the Champions” playing over loudspeakers. An all-town pep rally is under way. As we learn from a stupendously friendly woman in her 30s, the Cozad Haymakers are playing the Broken Bow Indians tonight. It turns out she’s the football coach’s wife, and recently visited New York City for the first time. “If I’d visited at 25 I might’ve never left,” she gushes.

Looking for a place to eat lunch in Fairbury (population 3,942), we discover Crystal’s Cafe, a roadside vision attached to the livestock sale barn, where a horse auction is just getting under way. It’s a big old place with a zigzagging counter, paintings of livestock on the walls, aromas of grease and grilling, a sign that says “SMOKING ALLOWED IN SALE RING.” The customers in Crystal’s Cafe look exactly as one would expect — but not Crystal Franklin-Fees, who is African-American, serving biscuits, bacon, sausage gravy and “loose beef” sandwiches to the room full of white Fairburians.

Payne's 1988 Ford Mercury Grand Marquis Colony Park station wagon leaving Red Cloud at dusk.Michael Christopher BrownPayne’s 1988 Ford Mercury Grand Marquis Colony Park station wagon leaving Red Cloud at dusk.

“So many people experience our country as a five-hour plane trip” from coast to coast, Payne says. “And that’s not our country.” Close up, you see the details of humanity and geography. Again and again during our two days, stereotypes are serendipitously alloyed by counterintuitive reality, like our lunch at Lo Mejor De Michoacan in Lexington (population 10,230), whose huge Tyson meatpacking plant has lately transformed it into a majority Latino town. (Payne wants to make a Nebraska-set comedy with Mexican-immigrant major characters speaking Spanish.) And in Red Cloud (population 1,020), Willa Cather’s hometown and literary wellspring, we end up spending the night in a splendid 1880s house restored by Jay Yost and Wade Leak, a stupendously friendly and unabashedly gay couple who are the energetic nonprofit impresarios behind the Willa Cather Foundation. Yost is from Red Cloud, but they spend most of their time in Manhattan (population 1,619,090), where Yost is a banker and Leak a music executive.

The Times’s photographer decides he’ll shoot Payne and me just outside Red Cloud, in the middle of Highway 281, sitting in the front seat staring out at the prairie sunset. The director can’t resist a little directing — making sure the sun is hitting our faces properly and that both of our faux-contemplative horizon gazes are fixed on the same fence post. It’s awkward and fun, absurd and great, once again like a scene from an Alexander Payne film.

If you spend 30 hours with a movie director, you end up talking a lot about movies. A couple of times he makes Hollywood phone calls, like when he decides a certain best-selling book he’s passed on adapting might make a good film after all. He dials his assistant, asking her to buy it on Amazon — a used copy, he tells her twice. (Frugality: very Nebraskan.)

But mostly the movie talk concerns other people’s films. Driving through Seward (population 6,964), we pass the Rivoli Theatre, where “Blue Jasmine” and “The Grandmaster” are playing. “They’re showing Woody Allen and Wong Kar-wai in Seward, Nebraska! Hip little town.” Out in Ogallala (population 4,737) a decade ago, he recalls, “I met a guy who remembered Coppola shooting ‘Rain People’ there in 1968!” Again and again he thinks of some decades-old obscurity he wants me to see — “Make Way for Tomorrow,” “The Naked Spur,” “The Bad and the Beautiful” (“the best Hollywood picture ever”), Japanese silent films from the sound era, Czechoslovak New Wave films printed on East German Orwo stock “that look sort of psychedelic.”

His passion for history extends beyond cinema. Every time we pass a roadside historical marker he pulls over. As we follow the Platte River, perhaps the least picturesque major river on earth, he says, “This is the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Gold Rush trail, the transcontinental railroad. This is the way west. The Via Appia of Nebraska.” He is also a collector of vintage Nebraskiana. Originally he’d plotted a northerly route, because he’d bought an old milk can from an eBay seller in Hubbard (population 236) but the guy foiled that plan by shipping it. He probably has the world’s premier collections of Omaha postcards and plates from defunct Omaha hotels. A few years ago, in an act of historic preservation, he and an old friend became landlords of Omaha’s King Fong Cafe, a dim, ornately Chinese restaurant unchanged from when it opened in 1920.

“Yes,” he admits, “I live a little in the past.” He writes letters on a Royal typewriter. On our trip he navigated with a paper map, and although he uses an iPhone, he brought along a 20th-century-style handset to plug into it.

Andersen and Payne take a stroll through Red Cloud.Michael Christopher BrownAndersen and Payne take a stroll through Red Cloud.

On this perfectly sunny early autumn weekend, the state looks ripe, verdant, golden, gorgeous. In “Nebraska,” however, Nebraska is not conventionally pretty. “I wanted leafless trees. I like the beauty of that austerity.” He didn’t even want snow beautifying the stubbly landscapes, so he shot in November and early December. “Anymore — that’s a very Nebraska usage: ‘Anymore . . . ‘ — anymore, snow doesn’t come until after the first of the year.” And after “12 months of horse trading” with the studio, he got the O.K. to shoot in black-and-white. He thinks black-and-white “puts a ‘period’ perspective on the present,” and more generally, he wanted to show “what feels real, not what feels beautiful — then do a beautiful representation of what feels real. A beautiful representation of the quotidian is what I think about with all the films. Flaubert said if you look at anything long enough, it becomes interesting. I feel that way about Nebraska.”

His embrace of authenticity extends to actors, some of whom in “Nebraska” “had never been in front of a camera before.” In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, an old Nebraska friend Dern’s character and his wife haven’t seen in years, played by a local lady, asks about the wife’s hairdressing business back in Montana. “The script said, ‘Are you still doing hair out there?’ But she said ‘Are you still fixing hair out there?’ With nonprofessional actors, you get gifts.”

Our trip offered up serendipities of its own. During two days on the road we discover that the house where I spent my first few years is 300 yards from the house where he grew up and his mother still lives; that as children we’d both bought our school clothes from Krug’s Men and Boys; and that as teenagers we’d attended the same language camps in Minnesota. At one point, a discussion of Payne’s Winnebago, the one Jack Nicholson drove in “About Schmidt,” leads him to mention the fact that Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia, “are R.V. people,” taking summer vacations in their Winnebago, sometimes camping in Walmart parking lots. Which leads me to tell him that Mrs. Thomas, then a girl about my age named Ginni Lamp, grew up in the house directly across from mine.

Approaching metropolitan Omaha toward the end of our 574-mile drive, the traffic in the opposite direction is bumper to bumper. “Right,” Payne says, “game day.” Around 5 percent of the state’s citizens are about to convene in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln (population 258,379) to watch Nebraska beat South Dakota State, 59 to 20. I ask if he was a big Cornhusker football fan. He shrugs. So not Nebraskan. “My dad had season tickets.” And his mother still pays for seats every year, then gives them away to friends. So Nebraskan.

Alexander Payne discusses how he found locals to play his parts for his latest film, “Nebraska.”

Correction: November 17, 2013

An article on Page 88 this weekend about a two-day road trip across Nebraska by the writer Kurt Andersen and the director Alexander Payne refers incorrectly to Mr. Payne’s father and to the family’s season tickets to Cornhusker football games. Mr. Payne’s father is in a nursing home; he is not deceased. And the season tickets are paid for by Mr. Payne’s mother, not by Alexander Payne.

 

A version of this article appears in print on 11/17/2013, on page M288 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Two for the Road.
Advertisements

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: