Already being eyed as a serious Academy Awards contender for his performance in the Alexander Payne film, Bruce Dern stars in Nebraska as Woody Grant, a 75-year-old father determined to make the trek from Montana to Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize that he believes will make him rich. Although he knows his father is deluding himself, David Grant (Will Forte), Woody’s son, reluctantly accompanies his dad on the trip.
In the below interview with ComingSoon.net, Dern discusses the ten-year road to making Nebraska a reality and, not unlike his on-screen character, reflects a bit on his life as a whole and explains how he believes that the new film is a honest look at a uniquely American way of life.
CS: “Nebraska” was a long time coming for you, wasn’t it? How it all begin?
Bruce Dern: Alexander Payne sent me the material ten years ago now. I was the first person, I think, that he said he had in mind. He didn’t offer me the part at first. He just wanted to know what I thought of it because I was in my mid-to-late 60s then. Could I be 75? Well, luckily, it took ten years to get the movie made and I am 75. I’m 77. I think the maturity helped a little bit and the aging process helped a little bit. That’s how I first saw the material. It wasn’t until a year and a half ago that he was finally going to get a chance to make the movie. He saw every actor there was in the age group, I’m sure. He went to other countries, I’m sure. He went everywhere. The biggest win for me in this whole movie is that I got the part. That’s the win for all of us. Not just for Bruce, but for Will [Forte], for June [Squibb], for Bob [Odenkirk], for Angela [McEwan]. Ron Howard’s dad, Rance, who plays my brother. To be in an Alexander Payne movie and have roles like this is similar, in a way, to being an entity in the business, as well all are — recognizable because of a history of work — and then having someone come down and say, “Let’s all go and do this.” Well, that’s what Roger Corman did for Jack [Nicholson] and I and Dennis [Hopper] and Peter [Fonda] and a lot of other guys in our generation. Francis [Ford Coppola], [Peter] Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme. We were all the University of Corman. He gave us the chance to play wonderful roles, which enabled us to — a corny phrase — be discovered, if you will. Alexander is now giving all of us geriatric folk — plus the kids — a chance to — I wouldn’t say “rediscovered,” but just a chance to be in a movie where the focus is on our characters first and not our characters seventh and eighth. I did a lot of movies where I was that guy. That’s just the nature of the business. I’m not crying or anything. I appreciate every film I’ve ever made and the effort that goes into making them. But, this time, we were the people that got the roles. It was fun and it was as good an experience as I ever had. I never felt like we were making something special. I’ve never been on a movie where I thought we were making something special except maybe during “Gatsby.” And that’s because the material was gigantic. I think “Gatsby” is better, if you’re going to make it, if you don’t treat it like it’s gigantic. If you make it a small movie about a gangster surrounded by wealthy people. Don’t go for the opulence of the movie. Go for, “What’s going on here? Who’s who?” Move the chess pieces. I think that’s what Fitzgerald meant for it to be, among the opulence. So it’s very hard to put that movie on the screen. It’s not any of our faults that have tried to, but you can’t put that last paragraph in a movie. It’s unfilmable.
CS: You mentioned at the press conference that you thought that the midwest belonged in black and white. Can you explain that idea bit further?
Dern: Well, I live on Lake Michigan, where I grew up. Twenty miles north of Chicago in what they call the North Shore. It’s not gaudishly opulent, but there’s bucks there. As I would go west and get about 100 miles away from the lake, the colors would change it became very black and white to me. I felt, once it got black and white, for the first time in my life, I was discovering America. That’s how I felt America should have been. I don’t know that Lewis and Clark saw anything but black and white. I don’t know that anybody knew what all the multiple colors were. Some of the mountain men did because they were luckily enough to go into the Yellowstone. They saw stuff that nobody else had seen yet. I felt that, when it became black and white, it was black and white, it was apparent that there was more honesty. There was more fairness. The people treated you by your handshake and by the way you looked them in the eye. That’s, I felt, what America was meant to me. There’s all kinds of countries and creeds. The Indian folks and the people from all the European countries and all the people that have migrated out there. I think, somehow, the midwest is fair. It’s extremely harsh, weather-wise. It can have tornados and it can have everything else. At times, you feel like God doesn’t look fairly down on them. He does. It’s just that, that day, when he rolled the dice, you’re gonna get bombed out with wind. So learn to deal with it. The magical thing about it all — and I saw it on this movie more than anything — is that, with all this said, they don’t leave. They stay there. They stay there because they’re monuments to what the country was made to be in the first place. It didn’t start with them. People had to get in s–tbag wagons to cross the prairie to get there. If they got there. To get there, you had to cross land that was other people’s land. If they didn’t want people to cross it, they told you so. When you grow up with the heritage of having the Indians out there — who were there long before you were – -and you try to move them out of the way or something, they’re not wrong. You’re wrong. You’re the interloper. That’s why it has always stayed black and white to me. There’s a fabulous scene in [Kevin] Costner’s movie about the Indians, “Dances with Wolves,” where they’re in a tent and the old chief is with them. The grandfather. He’s been told that they’ve got to move out of there because the white man is coming. The railroad is coming. There’s not going to be a place. They need to keep moving west or north. Chief Joseph took the Nez Perce into Canada. He takes a blanket and, out of the blanket, he says, “I don’t know. Many, many, many moons ago ” and he pulls out a conquistador’s helmet. He said, “The white man was here.” You know that, when they landed down in Mexico, Cortez and them came all the way up to North Dakota. That’s how you got the little Indian pony. The stallions bred with the ponies on the prairie and created the mustang. The Indian pony, so to speak. That’s the last living remnant you have of it all beside the buffalo. Then you realize that, God, they came all the way up from Mexico to there. To him, it was, “I don’t know. I think we can make it.” When they got here, they didn’t particularly like it. They didn’t settle it. They went back to Spain. You gotta walk a long way to see f–ing Spain from where I live. Or anybody that spoke Spain. That was what I see in the culture of the midwest. In the heart of the midwest. It’s funny. In Winnetka-Glencoe, where I’m from, it’s alive. I don’t feel the heartbeat of the country. You get into Iowa and start across. The next 1,800 miles, there’s a heartbeat. You can feel it. Because every day they’re faced with different problems than we are in the bigger areas. They’re faced with just putting food on the table for a family. Making it till Friday. Making it through the winter. Dealing with tornados and the fires and all that kind of stuff. It’s about surviving and these families survive! Alexander Payne is just giving them a tribute. History is still being made. With all the opportunities we have in America, most folks don’t leave. There are opportunities right there. That’s what their job is. To maintain family roots. They came in the wagons. They settled there. They’re going to make something of it. They’re going to keep what they made the same way. They’re going to keep it going. If I were to make a science fiction big movie about America, I would make a movie wherein the coasts all around America were diminished and gone and the only thing left is the heartland. I would make it not futuristic, but back 200 years ago. It was there as it is today and we made a country. If you made it again, the whole movie would be about making the country a better way. Not that it’s bad. It’s great. But that’s the kind of thing I would see. When somebody first saw “Nebraska,” a very famous cameraman said to me, “You know the thing that’s most striking that Phedon did?” Phedon Papamichael, our cinematographer. He did something that nobody has ever done before. He lit the sky. How do you do that? He’s won four Oscars. The other thing he said was that it’s like watching moving pictures of Ansel Adams photographs. I love that. That means that, not only was it the perfect choice, but it’s telling a story. That’s what the road trip does. We went I-don’t-know-how-many miles. You saw in the movie. There’s nothing out there. I mean nothing that we’re used to. You see some people, occasionally. Some cows. Even Woody and David, when they look out over the property at the end, the farm next to it is alive. They have 100’s of head-of-cattle. But our place is done.
CS: You mentioned that it was a ten-year road to “Nebraska”. You think there’s something that you, personally, have learned in the last decade that helped you find the Woody Grant character?
Dern: Well, I’ve learned very definitely. I’m still learning more. Maybe not enough yet. If you have these kinds of people in your life or anybody that is beginning to lose ground on time or on facility, you better hug ‘em. You better tell ‘em exactly what you wanted to tell ‘em, good and bad. Otherwise, when they’re gone, you’re gonna beat yourself up the rest of your life because you never told your dad or your mom or your sister or your uncle what you really feel about them. You gotta get it done before it’s too late. This is a movie about that. I’m not saying that Woody is a monument to America, but he’s a monument to people that are lucky enough to get to 77 in the first place. Who were lucky enough to dream that it might be true. There might be a million dollars there and you can’t tell me there’s not because Ed McMahon is an honest man and he’s on tv saying, “There’s a million dollars waiting for you.” It allows people to still be honored who dare to dream.
Nebraska is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.