Nebraska is up for six Film Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Feature, Best Director (for Alexander Payne) and Best Male Lead (for Bruce Dern). Here, screenwriter Bob Nelson tells us how his “small film” found its way from its humble beginnings in Seattle, where he was a TV writer, into the white hot Awards Season spotlight— Nebraska also scored a half dozen Oscar noms—in just ten short years.
Tell us about your ten-year journey to make Nebraska.
I had worked for ten years on a local sketch comedy show in Seattle called Almost Live! After it ended, friends in LA said I should give TV down there a try, and by the way, if you have a movie idea, they like to read those as well.
Right after I finished writing Nebraska, one of the guys I started with on Almost Live!, Bill Nye the Science Guy, came back to Seattle to do a science show for grown-ups called Eyes of Nye. So that delayed my move to Hollywood. He brought in a Santa Monica producer, Julie Thompson, who found out I had written a screenplay and asked to read it. She said she worked on a charity with a producer named Ron Yerxa, who might be interested in this kind of story. Ron and his partner at Bona Fide Productions, Albert Berger, soon optioned the script.
They sent it to Alexander Payne because they had produced his film Election, wondering if he’d want to be an executive producer or help them find a midwest director. Alexander shocked us all by responding that he would like to direct. But he warned us that he was just getting ready to shoot Sideways and it would not be the next movie after that because he was tired of shooting in cars. Neither we nor Alexander imagined it would be seven years before he shot his next film, The Descendants, but he did do Nebraska after that and thus kept his word.
So that’s a long way to say that actually that 10-year wait was pretty uneventful as far as Nebraska was concerned. I did one rewrite based on Alexander’s notes, and he did a rewrite of his own before shooting. It was all just a matter of waiting for the right time.
How personal is this story for you?
The core of it is very personal, but after that, much is invented. My father was a lot like Woody but not as crotchety, a good man who was an alcoholic, a mechanic who loaned out his tools, including a compressor, and never saw them again. He was shot down in the war (WWII), lost his teeth by the railroad tracks, fell and cracked his head open a couple of times. He and my mother were from northeast Nebraska, not far from where the film ended up being shot, an area I used to visit growing up. Woody’s brothers in the film were very close to my own tight-lipped but always entertaining uncles. A couple of them moved out to Washington state and started farms, so some of it’s from that experience as well.
Did you work with Alexander to further develop the script after he got his hands on it? What was your collaboration like?
By contract I had one rewrite, so during our first meeting Alexander gave me notes. A couple of years later I was finally OK’d to do that rewrite. When Alexander started preproduction he did his own pass, then sent it to me for my thoughts. We traded some emails and he did a little touching up, then locked the script.
Did you go to the set?
I went for one week as an observer. I took my mother with me and she got a walk-on part as Woman #1 Going to Salad Bar.
Were you surprised by the amazing reception the film has had?
Surprised in a way because it’s such a “small” film by Hollywood standards, but in the 10 years since Alexander became attached his reputation as one of our finest filmmakers has only grown. So by the time he shot it I was actually feeling more pressure that it do well and be well thought of. At a certain point I was just hoping the reviews wouldn’t be “Area Man Ruins Beloved Director’s Perfect Record.” So, I’m very grateful that so many people have enjoyed it.
Has this film had an impact on your career? What’s next?
After Nebraska was optioned I did get a lot of studio development work. What its release will mean is still too early to tell, but it does look like it will get me more attention in “the room.” Once you’re in the room, though, all the same factors that decide whether a film gets made are still in play. My only career ambition is to make more films about real people, films that are entertaining, funny and moving.
To draft off the Nebraska release, I’ve written a couple of new original screenplays for me to direct. The Tribe has my friend (again from the Almost Live! days) Joel McHale, attached, with Mr. Mudd (Juno) producing. We’re talking to financiers. I recently finished writing The Confirmation and just partnered with the Nebraska producers on that, so we’re about to go out to actors and financing. I also wrote a TV half-hour called Highston, which is about to go out.
What do the Spirit Award nomination and Oscar nomination mean to you?
The films that I grew up on the ‘70s are often lamented, but for good reason. They are the kinds of films I love, but are considered tricky prospects now because they often seem in between what we now think of as studio and independent. In my youth they were just films, and the debate was whether they were good or bad. I want to be a part of that line that runs from Preston Sturges through Billy Wilder, Hal Ashby, and now Alexander Payne, of filmmakers who succeeded by blending comedy and drama in one seamless story, just like real life. That Nebraska could be embraced by both Film Independent and the Academy gives me hope that I’m on the right track in continuing that tradition.
Can you discuss the difference between writing for television and film?
My television work was sketch and jokes, so it was far different than trying to write a story that stayed together for an 45 minutes. The main thing that type of writing taught me was economy—building a world, developing characters, a situation and having it all pay off in three minutes. The hardest thing for new screenwriters to learn is to be tough and taut with your scenes and dialogue. You have to tell the story with the scope of the novel in the space of a short story. When I wrote Nebraska, this training came in handy, plus the fact that my story involved people of few words.
What do you think of the rise of television these days?
I grew up with an equal love for film and TV, so I’m glad to see it getting more respect. I wouldn’t be writing today if not for Carl Reiner and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Lucy, The Smothers Brothers, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, Andy Griffith, Monty Python and on an on. These days Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Louis C.K., David Chase, Vince Gilligan and so many others have been inspiring.
For more from Nelson, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, check out Film Independent’s YouTube channel.
Lee Jameson / Film Education Coordinator