HOOPER, Neb. — Filmmaker Alexander Payne's grandmother was born in this picturesque town of 800 people about 50 miles northwest of his own hometown of Omaha.
But Grandmother Payne might have had trouble recognizing the place Tuesday, thanks to her Oscar-winning grandson. A slice of Hollywood had crowded into Hooper the day before.
Film trucks and trailers lined the east side of Main Street for two blocks, a double row for much of that, and the entire street was blocked to local traffic. Temporary canvas tenting covered the front of the Sodbuster Saloon. Inside, Payne was filming Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach and Will Forte in a scene for his sixth feature, “Nebraska.”
A few blocks north, the Hooper Auditorium was filled with warming trays and long tables for the crew of 90 about to break for a 2 p.m. lunch. Caterer Ivan Kerum, a native of Croatia based in Los Angeles, was preparing a feast of chicken kabobs, roasted beef tritips, grilled salmon, curry tofu, fried rice and grilled veggies.
Next door to the saloon, the VFW club became an overflow room for people killing time — or talking to reporters.
Payne chose to film in Hooper for the look of the place, not because of the family tie, but he said he's pleased about the coincidence just the same. Hooper is one of a half-dozen towns standing in for fictional Hawthorne, Neb., in the black-and-white comedy.
A newspaper office in Osmond; a rural cemetery in Elgin; a restaurant in Stanton; an old motel in Lyons; an undisclosed spot in Battle Creek; and several in Plainview — all will find their way into “Nebraska.” Payne and his location manager, John Latenser, carefully chose the sites.
“He's really meticulous about locations,” Latenser said Tuesday between takes. “He sees it like he does casting. He auditions actors, and also locations. He likes to scout, and he does a lot of it himself.”
In fact, said producer Albert Berger, Payne took more than a year for casting and locations for the small-budget movie. An authentic sense of place has become a hallmark of Payne's films. He's doubly invested to get the feel of “Nebraska” right since it is set in his home state.
It will help that the screenwriter for “Nebraska,” Bob Nelson, grew up visiting grandparents in Hartington, Neb., where both his parents were raised. He also has family in Norfolk, Wausa and Hartington, and was born across the Missouri River in Yankton, S.D.
“I had heard about people showing up at sweepstakes offices to claim their prize,” Nelson said Tuesday in Hooper, where he was visiting the set from his home in Seattle. “I thought there might be a road-trip movie in that, and I instantly thought of Nebraska.”
In “Nebraska,” Dern plays a cantankerous old man living in Montana who believes he's won a sweepstakes prize. He's determined to claim it in Lincoln. Forte plays his son, who makes the journey with his dad to try to keep him out of trouble. On the way to Lincoln, they stop in the family stomping ground of Hawthorne, where Dern's character runs into a former friend and nemesis, played by Keach.
When Payne first saw the script for “Nebraska,” he was just getting ready to film “About Schmidt.” Berger was hoping Payne would executive produce and suggest a director.
“I have an idea for a director,” Berger quoted Payne as saying. “How about me?”
But Payne knew he'd be filming “Sideways” next, and he didn't want to do three road pictures in a row. Could they wait until the next two pictures were completed?
Nobody knew it would take 10 years before “Sideways” and “The Descendants” were finished, least of all Payne. But Nelson says it was well worth the wait for one of Hollywood's hottest directors. He did a rewrite based on Payne's initial notes, then collaborated as Payne made deft revisions.
“He definitely made it his film, but he did it very delicately — just enough tweaking to get his voice in there,” Nelson said with a smile. “His changes were based on making it better.”
Monday afternoon, Nelson saw a scene filmed in the bar that was “intact from the way I initially wrote it,” he said. “Hearing Bruce Dern say a line I wrote — that was one of the thrills of my career.”
Early Tuesday afternoon, about 30 people and a ton of equipment were crowded into the Sodbuster bar, capturing a brief take of Will Forte, who plays Dern's son, whispering a caution into his cantankerous dad's ear. Dern wore a bandage on his forehead.
Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael did about a dozen takes as crew members fussed with lighting, a smoke machine and sound equipment. The director focused on timing and line delivery, suggesting slight adjustments to his actors each time before calling “Action.”
“Great job,” he said at last, satisfied with the final take.
It seemed that everywhere on the set, from craft services to drivers to producers, crew members were happy to talk about the other Payne movies they had worked on and what a nice guy he is. Payne is loyal to people who do good work, and they are loyal back.
Berger said filming would continue in Nebraska through Thanksgiving, then shift to Billings, Mont., and South Dakota before principal photography wraps in early December.
Wednesday morning, the hoopla was scheduled to move on from Hooper, including Payne's personal trailer. It's the same motor home Jack Nicholson drove in “About Schmidt” in 2002, when Payne first laid eyes on the script for “Nebraska.”
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