—Director Alexander Payne
A cantankerous father and placid son travel through a vanishing Midwest on the trail of a dubious fortune… and in search of an understanding of each other that once seemed impossible. The stubborn, taciturn Woody [Bruce Dern] insists he has won a million-dollar sweepstakes and must go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the prize, a 750-mile journey from their current home in Montana. Worried for his father’s state of mind, it falls to Woody’s reluctant, baffled son David [Will Forte] to accompany him on a trip that seems hilariously futile on the surface, and yet their odd journey becomes a kind of modern odyssey, particularly with a pit-stop made in their home town of Hawthorne, Nevada.
Shot in a black and white format that mirrors the dusky beauty of small-town USA and the film’s high contrasts of humor and heartbreak, the film gives consideration to questions of family roots and family riddles, delusion and dignity, self-worth and the quiet yearning for a dash of salvation.
To bring about the naturalism and authenticity Director Alexander Payne required for NEBRASKA, the auteur relied on Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael, Production Designer Dennis Washington, Set Decorator Beauchamp Fontaine SDSA, and their teams. The result is a very textural film set in the heartland of America and offering a fascinating look into human behavior.
SET DECOR talked with Fontaine about the making of this simple, yet richly imbued tale of a father and son’s journey across 750 miles and many unspoken leagues of the heart, a family’s odyssey…
SET DECOR: Director Alexander Payne says, “Visual style was my window into the picture. Black and white just felt like the right choice for this film, because that’s always how I read it and saw it. I’ve also always wanted to make a film in black and white. It’s such a beautiful format. And this modest, austere story lends itself to a visual style as stark, plain and direct as the lives of the people in the film.”
Set Decorator Beauchamp Fontaine SDSA:
Do you care to comment on this?
AP had regular movie screenings for the entire crew every Wednesday night during prep, and he hosted one evening of selects for me alone for set décor and lighting. I do not think I have ever worked with such a film aficionado. His passion and vast knowledge are inspiring.
SET DECOR: Please tell us about filming in black and white. Other set decorators and directors have mentioned the strange color combinations that one has to put together to get the depth in black and white. Did you encounter this phenomenon?
I had worked in black and white before, so was already comfortable with the process. Further, our iPhones are wonderful tools: I downloaded a photo app that enabled me to see what I was shooting in black and white on the spot. Pattern is usually your friend, but you start to learn what will just look muddy and ugly. Once you get into the groove, it becomes second nature. I love and welcome challenges, so this was fun.
SET DECOR: Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael says, “The specifics of tone and texture emerged from a series of tests we did to find the particular look of black and white that was right for the film. There’s nothing stylized about it, though. It’s a high-contrast look that supports the human comedy and really sets that mood.”
Indeed there was nothing stylized. AP will always gravitate to what is real and true. That puts a lot of focus, and pressure, on locations and set decorating. There was zero building on NEBRASKA, but the selected locations were fantastic, and provided the ideal tabula rasa from which to build the characters’ environments. This was particularly true for Aunt Martha & Uncle Ray’s
SET DECOR: Production Designer Dennis Washington mentions that Payne…“…always has something very specific in mind, but he is always open to opportunity. You will be in the car with him and he’ll suddenly stop and say ‘Look at that sign. We’ve got to have that sign.’ All of that enriches the story in every moment.”
Did that apply to the set dressing?
Yes! I even wonder if the aforementioned sign may have been “Herbie Husker” the mascot for the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team…AP was hell-bent on getting a big “N” and a “Herbie”, so we made one and borrowed another.
That being said, he is infinitely curious and open, so I know exactly what Dennis means. AP will always consider alternatives.
SET DECOR: How actively involved in set dressing choices did Payne become?
There was never a time AP asked to see photos ahead, nor did Dennis…
The only set where we had the luxury to do a reveal the weekend before the shoot was for Aunt Martha & Uncle Ray’s
house. I had added some touches that I thought Alexander would appreciate, such as a glass cabinet full of collectible state plates, with some anniversary plates and tchotchkes mixed in. It is in the background of the big, seated meal scene. Alexander loved that. Also, from some of Dennis’s scout photos there was a photo shrine to a family member who had graduated from nursing school. My buyer, Elle Lynch, was a local from Omaha. Her mother had actually graduated from nursing school and had a great portrait in her nurse’s cap. We put that up in the stairwell, with a floral garland and her certificate. It was as real as it gets, and the sweetness of it really appealed to Alexander. He had forgotten it from the scout, but was delighted to have it on the set.
Alexander’s management style is one of empowering the crew members he has selected to support his vision. Allowing, and encouraging, that kind of autonomy is ideal for my personality.
One of the most fascinating and informative afternoons of prep was spent at Alexander’s office looking at casting tapes. The invitation was in response to my inquiry about the characters. At first I was apprehensive, as I am not customarily involved in any process of casting and thus could not fathom what I would glean from watching the tapes. But, once Alexander ran the tapes of his cast for me, it all clicked into place. I knew, for instance, exactly what Bart & Cole’s
room would look like just from watching them audition. It was really a genius move on AP’s part, and completely unconventional.
So, once again, he gave me the soul of the person and expected me to deliver.
SET DECOR: Please tell us about finding “beauty in the mundane”. It’s a quote ascribed to Papamichael’s ability, but it obviously applies to your set decoration as well …
I think we were all taken with the simplicity of the life into which we were offered a glimpse. Our job was to distill beauty from the quotidian…to highlight it…neither to hide it nor to exaggerate it, but to let it just be. When creating an environment, given that we were not shooting a documentary, it is incumbent upon us not only to accurately represent a place and time, but to capture its unique essence. Done well, set decorators are masters at that. Look at Nancy Haigh’s work on NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, or more recently, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. I would like to think I came close on NEBRASKA!
SET DECOR: How much did practical lighting come into play? Did you have to work extensively with DP Papamichael and his crew on this?
It seems that practical lighting is taking a bigger and bigger place in the world of set decorating, so of course it is an opportunity for collaboration with the DP and his team. Again, Alexander’s stringent adherence to what looks real keeps any set from looking like a lamp store. And Phedon and his team are consummate pros, so it all worked out beautifully. I love those guys!
SET DECOR: Payne says, “In many ways, this story could be set anywhere in the U.S., but since it takes place in a state I know well, it gave me a chance to bring out a lot of details. I’m from Omaha, which is more of a city than where the ‘Grants’ are from, though, so the chance to explore rural Nebraska was almost exotic to me.”
Filming on location, particularly in Payne’s home state of Nebraska, the archetypal Midwest…open landscapes and small communities…could you tell us the pros and cons of location filming?
The excitement of the community members when they meet you and ask you about your job is truly contagious. It gives one a fresh perspective of how lucky we are to work in such a creative part of the industry.
Finding good crew locally can be challenging, from an experience perspective, but having local talent is a huge benefit. A shopper can be invaluable if they are well-sourced, and every decorator knows what a boon it is to have someone who can gather local mail and raid refrigerators and pantries for the layer with real patina. How come you can never make a jar of pickles look like it has been in the fridge for two years unless it really has?
But, truly, it is the kindness of the locals that makes you feel so great, and Nebraska is full of really kind people!
SET DECOR: Were you able to source most things locally?
Everything except for cleared artwork, the bane of Alexander’s existence!
SET DECOR: What was the one thing you were so glad to have with you?
My leadman, Jon Bush. And I am not even kind of kidding!
SET DECOR: What did you discover on location that completely surprised you?
How bloody cold it can get in a cemetery on a scout day!
SET DECOR: You mentioned the nurse photo, were there other serendipitous moments?
Gosh, too many to count. Serendipity seemed to follow me around! The locals were ever present to offer solutions and set dressing, as well as share sources and suggestions. The graciousness of the Nebraskans created a kind of perfect kismet.
SET DECOR: Did you have enough prep time?
For the most part. At the end, as we were piling up Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, we were really challenged to get a few of the sets dressed in time. We had never even scouted the hotel room where Woody
falls after gashing his head on the railroad tracks, so that was a bit madcap to pull together. We did it, though!
SET DECOR: Writer Bob Nelson said, “I wanted to write something about the joy of living and the sadness that goes with it….Mostly, I wanted the people in this film to seem so real that you get totally immersed in their lives.”
We do. Congratulations to all of you.