Here’s hoping, in Thanksgiving’s wake, that you’re not completely tired of leftovers yet — or that you won’t think this column’s a turkey (okay, a groan over that pun was earned).
I’m serving up a few tidbits from my reporter’s notebook after recent visits to Alexander Payne’s movie sets in Hooper and Plainview, Neb. — little anecdotes that didn’t really fit into stories filed over the past two weeks.
“Hi, Al. Anybody ever call you Al?”
That’s how Bruce Dern greeted director Alexander Payne with a mischievous glint in his eye just before filming a take in the Sodbuster, a bar on Hooper’s main street. Payne paused slightly before answering.
“My older brother,” he said.
It was the first time I’d ever heard anybody refer to Payne as Al. His answer, and the dry way he delivered it, made me think it will also be the last.
What do actors talk about between takes, when they are waiting for camera, lights, sound and set dressing to be just right?
I got to find out. Sound boom operator Jonathan Fuh was thoughtful enough to give me a set of wireless headphones that were directly connected to all of the actors’ microphones. I was hearing what the crew was hearing, and it made the day in Plainview, Neb., twice as interesting.
So, to answer the question: As Will Forte and a couple of actors playing his country cousins sat on a porch during a delay, the price of beer was the topic at hand. As in what a bargain it is in the taverns of northeast Nebraska. A 28-ouncer for just $4.50, one of the guys marveled.
Multiple takes can be trying. Filming part of a scene in which the camera is trained on him, as he talks to his son played by Forte, Dern said:
“Let’s do it again so Will can work on the half of the scene that’s not on camera.”
The crew cracked up with laughter.
Waiting for a camera setup by keeping warm in the restaurant side of Plainview’s D&K Lanes bowling alley, second-unit cinematographer Radan Popovic enthusiastically described to Payne a slice of life caught on camera that morning.
Looking for a sunrise shot that says the day is beginning in a small town, Popovic was stuck with a solid gray sky. Then, a stroke of luck. As he trained his camera on a building that might reflect what light there was, garage doors flew open and empty school buses paraded out, heading this way and that.
Popovic had his start-of-day shot.
Popovic, who is Croatian, told me that when he was new to this country Payne helped him get a lease on a place to live and wrote letters to get him a U.S. work permit. He has worked on four Payne movies now, starting with “Election.”
“I would do anything for that guy,” Popovic said.
It’s a perfect illustration of how Payne’s treatment of his crew members inspires loyalty.
A night shot is being taken outside Fat’s Lounge in Plainview, renamed Blinker’s Bar for the movie. Trouble is, the bar is open, and customers inside are visible through the front window, looking out toward the camera.
Should each one be asked to sign a filming release form in case they’re recognizable? That’s considered and rejected.
A digital technician offers, maybe joking, “I can paint them all out. Cost about $2,000.”
In the end, a cheaper, simpler solution: A crew member goes inside and asks the customers to not look outside while the crew gets the shot.
After my story from Hooper appeared, Joan Bushkofsky emailed me with kind words and a question. Payne had told me his grandmother was born in Hooper, which became the first sentence in the article.
“None of us (here) are able to decide who she was,” Bushkofsky wrote. “There were Paynes living in Hooper three/four decades ago, but no one can put two and two together. Do you have the name of Mr. Payne’s grandmother, or any information on her?”
I followed up with Payne on the set in Plainview. Grandmother Payne’s maiden name was Hoffman.
Grandfather Payne “couldn’t go all the way back to Greece to find a bride, so he married a woman of German stock,” Payne smiled.
The family moved from Hooper to Wahoo, Neb., around 1905, Payne told me, and founded the Wahoo Bakery.
“It’s still there,” he said with a touch of pride.
Payne’s father, George, later went into the food business himself, operating the Virginia Cafe in downtown Omaha.