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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 29 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 48
Catching up with Bob Nelson - An exclusive interview with the Nebraska screenwriter (and Almost Live alum)
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Catching up with Bob Nelson - An exclusive interview with the Nebraska screenwriter (and Almost Live alum)

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Bob Nelson is a Seattle icon. A stalwart of the long-running KING-TV sketch comedy series Almost Live, he was instrumental in helping Bill Nye become the scientific celebrity he is today with his work as a performer on Bill Nye the Science Guy and as writer on Eyes of Nye. He's got one of those voices that anyone who's ever seen him perform finds impossible to forget, an undeniable talent the city is proud to call one of its own.

Now Nelson can add 'Hollywood screenwriter' to his résumé. His first produced script, Nebraska, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne (The Descendants; Sideways), is platforming in theaters across the United States through November. The story revolves around the curmudgeonly, taciturn Woody (Bruce Dern), a Montana resident who decides to make the trek to Lincoln, Nebraska, when he receives a sweepstakes notice in the mail saying he 'may' be the winner of a million-dollar prize. Feeling forced to accompany him on this by-all-accounts-fruitless quest is his son, David (Will Forte), their familial odyssey the dramatic narrative crux around which all else revolves.

'I actually wrote [Nebraska] 11 years ago,' laughs Nelson. 'It was optioned by the producers 10 years ago. It's been a fairly long process. When Alexander became attached in 2003 he said, 'I'm just about to shoot Sideways. Nebraska will not be my next project because I'm tired of shooting inside cars. But it will be the movie after that.' And, while I know it has been 10 years, he did keep his word. This is the movie after Descendants. So, there you go, I guess.'

Not that the wait wasn't a long one. While Nelson would move on, shuffling from project to project, working on other things, Nebraska was never far from his thoughts. 'Every year or so I would check in with the producers,' he recalls, 'or oftentimes I'd even hear from Alexander himself, and my question was always whether or not [he] was going to shoot this movie. The answer was always yes. The answer that always came back was positive.'

'In a way, this was rather comforting. In Hollywood terms, having a movie that has a very good chance of being shot relatively soon is great. I mean, sure, there were times during the process where I did worry that [Alexander] would pick up the script again and say, 'Oh! What was I thinking?' There was always that possibility. But that never happened. He said in interviews that he had picked it up from time to time and read it again and said, 'Yeah! I really want to make this.' There was never a point where he seemed to be wavering. That meant a lot. It also made the wait for it to happen bearable.'

Nelson says that last bit with a slight chuckle, and it's apparent while that statement may indeed be true, that didn't lessen some of the worry over whether things would turn out for the best, let alone turn out as they have. Not only has Nebraska met with rave reviews from across the critical spectrum since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival this past May, stars Bruce Dern and June Squibb - as well as Nelson himself, for his original screenplay - have all long been thought to be major players as far as Academy Award nominations are concerned. Moreover, only an hour before our telephone conversation, the film received six Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Picture.

A SHARED SENSIBILITY
All of which makes the fact Payne was willing to wait a decade to make the film and give Nelson's script the love, care, and consideration it deserved all the more remarkable.

'It's amazing,' agrees the writer. 'At that time [2003], the only movie of Alexander's I'd seen was Election. About Schmidt was about to come out. He was working on Sideways. So while I liked Election an awful lot I didn't know a great deal about him.'

'But I had read interviews with Alexander where he basically said he wanted to make movies about real people, wanted to focus on real stories, as those were the kinds of movies he grew up loving in the 1970s. The fact he responded to strongly to this script was amazing to me. Everything he said, he was always talking about just the types of movies I myself wanted to make. It was very fortunate that this script found its way to him.'

The inspiration for the project was born from a surreal combination of personal experience and random headlines in the news that caught Nelson's eye, each facet feeding the other until the script itself was born. 'I'd heard about the main story,' he remarks, 'about people thinking they'd won a sweepstakes and going cross-country to the company's headquarters to pick it up. These things actually happened. So I started there. But then I started thinking about my family and the many trips I had taken to the Midwest growing up, visiting the uncles and aunts and so on. Then I started thinking about my dad, and while Woody isn't exactly like my father, I started with him as far as constructing the character was concerned. [My father] wasn't as crotchety as Woody, but he was a mechanic, and he did have his tools stolen, and he was a pilot in World War II who was shot down, so there are definite similarities.'

There is an old-Hollywood feel to the film that is in many ways undeniable. Watching it, elements of Preston Sturges' most notable efforts, especially Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Sullivan's Travels, are readily apparent. While the writer appreciates the comparisons, he just as readily concedes it wasn't by design.

'It kind of just happened,' admits Nelson. 'I love Preston Sturges, but I can't say I was ever purposefully channeling him or his movies while I was writing. I also love Billy Wilder. I love Hal Ashby. I love Woody Allen. All of these guys, they have the ability to meld drama and comedy while keeping things realistic, which are the types of movies that I love. Those films and these guys were a definite inspiration for me. Also Horton Foote, especially Tender Mercies and A Trip to Bountiful, and while those aren't exactly comedies, I kind of relied on his instincts as far as writing the drama was concerned. I drew inspiration from him as well.'

Those dramatic elements where arguably the most difficult aspects of the narrative to construct, Nelson's background in sketch comedy writing for shows like Almost Live and The Eyes of Nye not exactly allowing for much room to mine emotional depths with anything close to narrative fluidity. Keeping things moving forward at a delicate rhythm and not allowing the narrative to slip into becoming a series of vignettes was always on his mind.

'It's true,' he admits, 'as you say, I do come from a comedy background, so I did feel most comfortable writing those bits and scenes. But I always felt, if I could make the comedy scenes work, if I felt I could get a laugh, then I could rely on the scenes before those moments to be mainly focused on the drama. I knew I had bits of comedy coming up I felt were good, so I didn't have to infuse the other scenes with comedy - I could be secure that the laughs would come naturally as the characters progressed along their path. So, I started with the comedy, came up with a moment that I felt was funny yet still character-based, but after that I was able to fill in with the drama, and that's in many ways how the story ultimately came to be.'

'EXTRAORDINARY' CAST
None of which would have mattered had Payne not found actors capable of inhabiting the characters Nelson had created, and on that front the writer couldn't be happier. 'I was thrilled,' he happily exclaims. 'Bruce Dern is a legend. He's had a great career, but he hasn't had a starring role in 30 years, so I just knew he could play this part of Woody brilliantly. He not only did, but he even went beyond anything I ever could have imagined. He's perfect in every way.'

'I'd met Will Forte a few years earlier in regards to another project and I remember thinking if that didn't come off, I had to work with this guy in the future - he's one of the nicest men I've ever met in Hollywood. When Alexander cast him here, it just felt like it was meant to be. I've had the chance to meet and talk with him more as we've done publicity for this and, happy to say, he's still the nicest person in Hollywood I've ever met. He's also sensational in the movie, so that helps, too.'

'But all of the others? It's incredible. June Squibb is perfect once again. Stacy Keach, of course, is great, and I just felt like he was born to play [his] role. Then there's Bob Odenkirk. He's been great in everything I've ever seen him in. He's just terrific as the brother. Again, I couldn't be happier. I think we ended up with just an extraordinary cast.'

Oscar buzz has been swirling around Dern and Squibb ever since the film's debut, talk that likely won't subside anytime soon thanks to the six Independent Spirit nominations. The odd man out, however, had been Saturday Night Live stalwart Forte, and for whatever reason his performance and the bedraggled, goodhearted, yet slightly exasperated son who feels compelled to join Woody on his travels had been consistently overlooked.

'I think you're exactly right,' agrees Nelson. 'I sort of felt bad for Will because he doesn't have any showy scenes, doesn't get to do anything flashy, mainly having to take things down a level and play a regular guy. At first, some of the reviews seemed to be ignoring him. Lately, though, I think people are catching on just how absolutely great he is in this role. Every time I see the movie I appreciate his performance even more. He just seems to disappear into the part. What's nice is that, those Independent Spirit Awards? Will Forte has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. So, I'm thrilled - I do think people are finally starting to realize just how good he is.'

Not that he was the only one to get a somewhat surprising nomination. Nelson, too, was the proud recipient of a nod, his Nebraska script up for the award for Best First Screenplay. 'It feels great,' he admits. '12 Years a Slave has seven nominations and we were second with six nominations, so I think that's wonderful. I'm so happy for everyone. I've never been to it [the Independent Spirit Awards], but it seems like a great event. It's apparently very casual, as it's the night before the Oscars. Everyone wears jeans and just relaxes and has a fun time. I'm looking forward to going.'

And what about the event the following night? Has Nelson allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to head down the red carpet at the Academy Awards?

'Who knows?' he laughs. 'I don't think anyone can prepare for something like that. There are a lot of names being tossed around this year. For me, as Bruce and others have said just getting the movie made was a victory, so now just being talked about [for Oscars] is a second win. All of that is great. I've just been soaking it in.'

2013: A BANNER YEAR
As for the amount of names being thrown out there this year as potential Academy Award nominees, the writer is right in saying there are quite a few of them, 2013 proving to be as strong a cinematic showing as any in a very long time. On one hand, it's great that Nebraska is being mentioned in the same breath as all of the other contenders, the fact the film is resonating with audiences, critics, and Academy members wonderful as far as Nelson is concerned. On the other, it also means the competition for those few nomination slots is fierce, meaning there are no guarantees he, Dern, or anyone else involved with the film's making could score a nod.

'Two of my biggest influences starting out were Woody Allen and, later on, Joel and Ethan Coen,' recollects the writer. 'Yeah. They had to pick this year to put out movies. And not just any movies - brilliant ones. And they aren't the only ones. Seems like everyone picked this year to do something fantastic.'

'But, seriously, first and foremost I'm a movie lover. I want to see, enjoy, and experience great films. There are some amazing movies out there this year - 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, so many others, it's just been incredible. There are at least a couple dozen of very, very good movies out there right now. Just to be tossed into that group? To be a part of this conversation? It's wonderful. I couldn't ask for more.'

BUT IS IT BELIEVABLE?
Not everyone is rhapsodic about the picture, of course, a vocal minority weighing in that they don't buy the central conceit, that they have trouble believing anyone would actually believe they'd won a sweepstakes in the manner Woody does and make the decision to go cross-country in order to redeem it. This is a criticism Nelson certainly understands even though he has trouble agreeing, noting the core elements of the story were inspired by actual, documented cases of people doing just that.

But that's not the whole of it. 'I guess those people are just fortunate that they've not had a relative or a loved one going through early dementia or dealing with mental health problems,' he matter-of-factly states. 'These sorts of things did really happen, and that's where my inspiration was drawn from, but even if it hadn't happened and I made this all up, that doesn't change the issues or what it is Woody is dealing with. Anyone who has known someone with mental health and dementia problems could easily imagine them doing something like this. It isn't at all farfetched. I just think they've, people who take issue with this part of the plot, just haven't had this experience yet, so maybe that's why they have trouble relating. I don't know what to tell them. This kind of stuff happens. Maybe they just need to watch the movie again with a more open mind.'

All of which brings Nelson full circle - his hopes for the film, its awards prospects, audience reactions and all the rest not so much different now as they were a decade ago when Alexander Payne first took control of the script. 'It's been a long road, and I just hope now that the film is out there, people feel like Woody and David's story is one they can relate to,' he remarks. 'I hope this sort of relationship is something they have experienced in their own lives, whether it be father-son or whatever, where two people who have had trouble communicating learn to put their differences aside and make a connection. Somebody has to step up. Somebody has to be the person who forgives, tries to restore dignity. That's what this movie is about.'

'I don't think it's a spoiler to say Nebraska, to me, is about a father, in a very subtle way, telling his son that he loves him and that the son, through actions and not words, finds a way to do the same. That's what I want people to come away with. It's what I wanted them to come away with when I was writing the script. I want them to think of the people in their own lives and want to find a way to make that sort of connection. Hopefully, they can.'

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