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cannes 2013

Cannes: Before You Ask, Here’s Why Alexander Payne Shot Nebraska in Black and White

With Instagram more popular than ever, it should be no surprise that indie movies are embracing the Inkwell filter, too. Newly in theaters is Noah Baumbach’s comedy Frances Ha, which sets Greta Gerwig in contemporary Manhattan but films her in retro black-and-white. And today at Cannes, Alexander Payne premiered his follow-up to The Descendants, another modern-day movie shot in monochrome. Titled Nebraska, it stars Will Forte as a Midwestern man who indulges his elderly father (Bruce Dern) when the latter wants to take a road trip to pick up the sham magazine jackpot he’s positive that he just won. (Think Publisher’s Clearing House.) At the press conference afterward, you’d better believe that the first question to Payne is the one that wary marketing executives must have asked him, too: “Why black and white?”

“I wasn’t expecting that question at all,” Payne replied dryly.

But the director of Election and Sideways is no dummy, and if he didn’t already have an answer prepared for a question he’s bound to be asked until Nebraska’s November release date — and beyond — he still managed an erudite response on the fly. “It just seemed like the right thing to do for this film,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful form, and it’s really left our cinema because of commercial, not artistic, reasons; it never left fine-art photography. This modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white, a visual style perhaps as austere as the lives of its people.”

“It’s not the most commercial form going,” one journalist ventured tentatively.

“You don’t know that yet,” Payne replied to laughter. “Yes, it took some discussions with the studio — Paramount, in this case — to get them to agree to let me make it in black and white at a budget with which I could make a decent film. Filmmaking in America is quite expensive, at times much more expensive than I think it should be. And yes, we did settle on a budget less than it would have been if it had been in color, but it was still at a rate with which I could feel comfortable.”

Certainly, part of that budget approval must have been predicated on how well Payne’s films have historically done at the Oscars: He’s scored back-to-back Best Director nods for his last two films, and The Descendants was a Best Picture nominee that earned a strong $82 million. Expectations are probably more modest for Nebraska, and the response today is what I’d call mixed-positive. Among the journalists I’ve spoken to, I’m one of the most enthusiastic; otherwise, I’ve heard a lot of “I like it, but I didn’t love it,” and then there’s the Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek, who told me that Nebraska made her want to stab her eyes out. (Eyes actually do get stabbed out in the booed Cannes entry Only God Forgives, which Zacharek liked better than most.)

But no one received the movie more warmly than its star, Dern. Asked how long it’s been since he was the first-billed star of a major motion picture, the 76-year-old Dern, who was nominated for an Oscar for 1978’s Coming Home, cracked, “You mean the lead in a movie that ever was witnessed by human beings? I would say 25 years.” He told us that he’d add Payne to a select list of geniuses he’s been directed by, which includes Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Trumbull, Francis Ford Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino (sorry, Hal Ashby and John Frankenheimer), then emotionally declared that the themes of the movie hit home for him: “I’ve never had much of a relationship with my father, but at the end of this movie, I found my father.” Dern gestured to his director. “And that’s him.”

In fact, Dern hopes to keep the unlikely family unit together. He went on at length about how he loved his screen son Forte, then began to play matchmaker for his real-life actress daughter: “If I could just hook him and Laura up,” Dern said, “it’d be perfect!”

Photo: Bona Fide Productions