'Nebraska' Screenwriter Bob Nelson on Waiting Nine Years to Become an Overnight Success

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If patience is a virtue, "Nebraska" screenwriter Bob Nelson is a veritable saint. Prior to this year, there were four entries on his IMDB page, and three of them were writing credits for episodes of Magic Johnson's ill-fated talk show, "The Magic Hour". Nelson, however, wasn't too concerned about the apparent state of his career, because he had a secret, the kind of ace up his sleeve that most aspiring screenwriters can't even fathom let alone dream about.

A humble and wonderfully warm fellow whose dry wit reveals a background in sketch comedy, Nelson always knew that he wanted to write a feature-length screenplay that lovingly (if wistfully) explored his relationship with his late father against the unique backdrop of his home state. And sometime in 2003, he put the finishing touches on his tender but acerbically hilarious script for "Nebraska", a story that explores the complex intergenerational dynamics between parents in America by focusing on an erratic old coot named Woody who mistakenly believes that he's won $1,000,000 from the Publisher's Clearing House, and the resigned son who agrees to drive his father to collect his "prize." The pair don't get far on their road trip before car troubles forces them to make an unexpected pitstop in Woody's childhood home, a small and static Nebraskan town that seems to have been forgotten by the rest of the country.

Nelson sent the script along to someone who showed it to someone who forwarded it to someone who decided that it would make a great Alexander Payne movie. Fortunately for Nelson, Alexander Payne felt the same way. A revered filmmaker whose relatively small body of work (which includes "Election" and "Sideways"), nevertheless bears an unmistakable stamp, Payne has always written the screenplays for the films he's directed, even those that he adapted from popular novels. But that wasn't exactly by design. He was always on the hunt for a screenwriter with a baton he was willing to relay and run with, but he's famously selective about his projects (he's only directed two films since 2004). Then he read "Nebraska." As Payne told me last month, "After all these years, I finally got a script that I wanted to make, that I get to infuse with my own personality somehow, but I didn’t have to write. F**k, what a relief!"

The only problem was that Payne already had a script that he wanted to make. A script that he adapted called "The Descendants". So he calls up Bob Nelson, who lives with his wife on a small island near Seattle, and tells him that he wants to direct his script, but it's going to be a while. In May of 2013, after nine years and no change to Nelson's IMDB page, "Nebraska" premiered in competition at the movie world's most prestigious event, the Cannes Film Festival. It's hard to imagine all the Christmas parties and family reunions at which Nelson must have been forced to stick to his guns and assure the skeptics that a major American auteur was making his screenplay, but the wait was worth it (and Nelson wasn't exactly twiddling his thumbs during that time, as he's become involved with a number of other high-profile projects, including one at Pixar). "Nebraska" is one of the year's best films, and Nelson's script lays the bedrock for Bruce Dern's unforgettable portrayal of Woody, the actor having perfectly aged into the role during the nine years between when it was written and when it was shot.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Nelson in the back of Paramount's Times Square screening room, where we discussed the unusual genesis of his first produced screenplay and our relationships with our respective fathers.

FILM.COM: So how's this whole thing been going?

BOB NELSON: It's been pretty good, I've been on the road for over a week now. Went to LA, came out here a couple days ago, and then I head back to LA for a few more days.

Have you come to New York often?

No, embarrassing to say, but last year my wife and I finally made it to New York after years of planning. It was like Jimmy Stewart trying to get out of town every time we'd make plans to come to New York. Finally, last year we made it.

Was it everything hoped and dreamed?

Oh, it was great. I've been subscribing to “The New Yorker” since I was 17.

It's funny, because you’ve lived about as far away from New York as you can get in the United States.

Yeah, Yeah. Otherwise, you're in the Pacific Ocean.

You're on an island now, right?

Yeah, Whidbey Island north of Seattle.

Very "Wicker Man" territory. That's my completely New York-bound idea of it. I'm sure it's way off.

You might get some of that, yeah. A combination.

Well, truth be told, I loved the film very, very much. From what I could gather watching the trailers and reading the reaction from Cannes, it seemed like maybe this might be the first Alexander Payne film that I didn't directly relate to. In a way, it seemed so foreign to my experience. But in many respects I actually connected to it more strongly than I have to any of his other films, especially because of the film’s central father / son relationship. 

You had an unusual experience with this film in that you were told that Alexander Payne wanted to make it, and then you had to wait nine years for him to actually make the thing. What’s that feeling like, where you get the opportunity of a lifetime and are then told to wait a decade? Is it bittersweet?

Yeah, bittersweet is about right. I didn't really get that down, as people might think, because every year or two I would check in. I'd either hear from Alexander or the producers, and I only had one question: "Does he still really want to make this film?" And the answer always came back “yes”. In a way, it was nice, like "Oh, I've got this film. It's gonna be made someday, it's almost guaranteed." It's like having this thing in the bank that you can count on. He had told us right from the beginning that he was, at that time, just gearing up to make "Sideways" in the fall. And he said "Nebraska" will not be the film after "Sideways", either. We didn't know that it would take him seven more years to make "The Descendants" at that time, but, you know, things happen. But, he kept to his promise. [laughs] It was the film after the film after "Sideways".

So maybe it’s not quite as quixotic as what Woody is going through in the film, but you had this sort of pot of gold set up for the future.

Exactly, yeah. And in the meantime, he made "Sideways" and "The Descendants" and he developed even more skills as a film director, which were already considerable, and his reputation continued to grow. And that’s great for a little film like this that's, you know. Everyone in LA, they'd call it small now, a film like this.

There are no giant robots or superheroes, so yeah, it must be tiny.

Yeah. So, it takes someone with his respect and reputation to make a small film like this and make it in a way that a lot of people will relate to it and maybe it will get a wider release than if it were somebody else making it. It might have been made for $2 million and gone to the film festivals and DVD, or streaming now. So, to me, the ten years was well worth it.

That's great. And, so, other than that one phone call every year or so, you weren't in constant dialogue with him about evolving the script or developing it in new directions?

No. After he became attached in the spring of 2003, we sat down and he gave me notes, because I had one rewrite in the contract, so I did my rewrite. They didn't ask for it right away, they just gave me the notes. And then in 2005 they said go ahead and do your rewrite. So, after that, any revisions were his. He did his own pass on the script, and, uh, you know, he would just check in with me from time to time. And when he finally had his draft, he sent it to me for comments. And I looked it over, and I thought I really liked a lot of the changes he'd done. There were a couple, you know, "Why didn't I think of that? Of course, of course." Mine was 2005, and then I saw his in 2012. So a seven year gap, and now I'm reading the new version of the script. But he did ask for my feedback all along the way. Anytime there were changes to the script, I checked in and I sent him some thoughts and, um, that was pretty much it. We didn't see each other during that time, we didn't run across each other.

Well, you were like, "Go make your movies as fast as you can."

Yeah, get that second one done.

Maybe this isn't endemic to all writers, but I feel like there's sort of a natural feeling, when a project is gestating, to grow less fond of it over time. To think, "I can write something better, I can start over." Were you ever at that point with yourself, where regret or doubt crept in? 

You know, I do that with every script, you're right. But, on this, in a way this one was good, because now it's out of my hands and in the hands of, perhaps, our best director/writer.

Alexander Payne is a good person to have their hands on it, I suppose.

Yeah, to be able to hand it off to somebody who could make it better is everybody's dream in this business. No matter what you're doing. But, yeah, my own scripts when I'm writing them, I'll finally get to the point where, "Okay, this is ready to go out." And then I'm immediately thinking "No, no it's not."

To talk about the script itself, Woody is very confused and kooky, but at the same time, he is the only person in the film and maybe the only protagonist in any Payne film who knows very explicitly what he wants. Did that sort of lucid desire make it easier for you to walk the tightrope of navigating his senility and finding that balance between being him being vacant and clinical?

Yeah, yeah. It was tough when I was writing this, because I did not want to make it – I wanted humor in it, because that's my background, and I love dramas that have comedy in them, but I did want to be sensitive to that, because Woody is inspired by my own father, and I wrote this as a poem to my dad, who's long gone. For me it was just about trying to understand somebody who's gone through this, who may have an addiction, or whatever it is, and I tried to keep it so that you don't really identify if he has Alzheimer's or dementia, because I wanted as many people to relate to it as possible. So it is a tightrope. I relied on other people reading it, and then when it got into Alexander's hands, and the producers – there’s Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger,  who worked with him on “Election" – we confronted that fine line between using this for humor or not. But, my dad had a sense of humor, too, and my relatives from the midwest have dry, deadpan senses of humor, and that's kind of what I grew up with, so I do tend to find humor in everything, but I also realize that it's a very sensitive topic. So, you take it to the line, and then you hopefully have other people around you who are able to tell you if you've gone too far.

It's interesting, because he obviously has problems with memory, especially short term, but so much of the film and his journey is predicated on his memory, or lack thereof, of his earlier years. And so the town where they stop has this really "Twilight Zone" quality to it, where it's this sort of lost-in-time place where this whole cast of characters from his life is waiting for him. How did you create that town?

Well, the town it was kind of based on where my parents came from. But, um, bleaker. Their town is a nice town, it's called Hartington, Nebraska, and it’s in northeast Nebraska. But to add to the drama, I started thinking of, you know, the times I loved in Nebraska and the people I met. When I was a kid growing up, we'd go back on vacation. So I just had in my mind, what if it were, you know, the economy was a little more… if  the farms had been bought up in that area, and when the farms disappeared, you have those empty houses, like the Grant family has, then all the people who work in those towns, who were bankers and insurance people, are suffering, too. And that had hit the midwest long before the rest of the country…  America had its big collapse in 2008, but in the midwest it was gradually happening over the last 20, 30 or so years.

So I just pictured this town where people are trying to stay there, they love it there, that's where their people are, and I wondered what it would be like for them to try and stay there.

When Woody goes back, maybe he thought that there'd be more people he’d know – like in that first tavern he goes to – but they're gone. This is kind of a subtle thing, this is like a screenwriter thing, but he's trying to go at first to a happy tavern, and you should see that later when Payne does the jump cut of them talking and drinking, and there's no one left that Woody knows there, he goes to the bad tavern, where Ed Pegram and his fellas hang out. I really wanted to be as truthful to the memories I had of the place, which is that there's good people, and there's bad people. It's funny when I see some comments about the film that say Woody goes home and everyone in the town comes after him, and it's funny because there's only one person in the town that goes after him. It’s funny how people perceive things.

NEBRASKA

Would you say there's a simmering undercurrent of resentment that Woody left and the town’s fortunes faded, and maybe that's what people are picking up on?

Yeah, yeah. This guy came back and, yeah. Especially to me, it's more like this individual family is the problem. Everyone in town is pretty nice to him, and seems genuinely happy for him, but he does have this family that has this history, and you don't know if their version is correct, or if Kate's version is correct, so, you know, when that hits, there are people in the family that are obviously after his money and resentful. But, again, most of those brothers are fine, they're happy for him, too. They just don't talk a lot.

I think the town's response is epitomized in the newspaper's reaction to him being there, which is a really sweet detail. Not to get too far off track, but the woman at the paper – his former flame who we meet briefly – clearly shares such a reservoir of feeling with Woody, and I imagine that you could have spent an hour of screen-time with her, learning about their past. Was that an impulse for you at some point?

Yeah, it was, but when I was writing this, I just wanted to keep it as tight as possible. I did write more scenes that either got left out or ended up being cut when we got the shooting draft ready. As the screenwriter, there's kind of a debate now in Hollywood about backstory. Because, for a while, everyone was pushing “backstory, backstory,” almost like “conflict, conflict.” And I think it's whatever the story needs. I just finished writing a script that shows no backstory, so you're having to bring it yourself, as the viewer, trying to understand how this person got there.

In "Nebraska", I felt like there was a certain amount of backstory needed, because David needs to find out these things. But, I didn't want to do too much, because I love it when you can hit that sweet spot where the person viewing the film is bringing their own life and experience to it. If you give them everything, if you tell them every little thing they need to know about why this person is the way they are, they don't get to participate as much, I think.

And the beauty of that scene, for me, is that, I think so much of this film is about, these aren't people who change so much as they change the way they look at one another. Like, for my father, I remember learning that he briefly dated Bette Midler in the '70s, and I was like, “What!?" That just doesn’t fit in with my conception of my dad at all. But of course I think of him as being this very fixed concept in my mind. So the film’s idea that the most relevant mysteries in our lives are couched in the mundane certainly rang true for me. But building the actual story around David must have been very difficult, because while he may not be an entirely passive character, he’s still rather reactive for a protagonist, but at the same time, he's also the narrative’s emotional center. How do you balance having our proxy also be the film’s beating heart?

Well, a lot of people in Hollywood would have insisted that David be more proactive, and that there be a lot more conflict between the father and son, but it seems sometimes that we're only creating movies now about aggressive people, or uh, people who are more outgoing. The prevailing wisdom is that we can’t have stories about less aggressive people like David anymore, because there's this prototype we have. So, I love that I was able to get away with this. That David is just wandering through life, and maybe he was affected by his dad who he doesn't even really know, and maybe that's why he's drifting.

So, like you said, people keep saying "who's the lead in this,” and to me, they're both the lead. And one of them has a clear-cut goal, like in most Hollywood movies, there's this goal you go after, but one of them doesn't know what he wants, or even how to go after it. But there's one thing David does know at this point in time, and that's he really wants to try and figure his dad out before it's too late.

A lot of this started with my own personal life, and there are a lot of personal items in the movie that came from real life. And one of them is that I didn't find out until I was an adult that my dad was shot down in World War II. And then, talking to relatives, they'd say "Oh, yeah, your dad, he didn't talk a lot. He was a nice guy, he's friendly enough.” But he didn't talk much before, and when he came back from the war, something changed him, and he was even less verbose. He was a nice guy, friendly and, like Woody, very trusting of people. He would loan out his tools and have them stolen – he was a mechanic. So, a lot of people your age – my age, even – are still finding out things about their parents that they never knew. And David even finds out that, despite what his mother says, that she went after Woody ferociously. You know, you wouldn't get that, and he probably never saw that by the time he was a kid, they probably had this dynamic already set up that you see carried out in the film.

I'm starting to think less and less that it's a generational thing and more that it's how fathers and sons, or parents and children, sort of communicate – or don't. And they get in these sort of calcified dynamics, and they clam up. Your father had these amazing stories that were at the heart of who he was. I feel like a lot of people probably are that way, regardless of the generation to which they belong. But I wonder, to go back to that idea of the traditional character and how all movies now have these aggressive characters with clear wants, maybe in some sort of unconscious way, was it a bit of a way of poking fun at the idea that all movies had to be like that, how in your movie the one character that has a clear goal is mercilessly mocked for his delusional desire? 

Um, yeah. I mean- [laughs] I wrote it so long ago, sometimes it's hard to remember what I was thinking when I started out. I mean, my first impulse was, uh, I just, I wanted to write about this father and son, and somebody asked me last night at a screening, "What was your theme?" and I don't necessarily think in these terms. But my first impulse, forgiveness was the theme. But it's shifted over time, or maybe just added different themes to it, but it was really a son trying to understand his dad and to forgive him for any slights that he made, that may have been real or imagined, and just trying to understand another person that had these problems that you've had to live with all these years.

"Nebraska" opens in limited release on November 15th. It will then roll out to markets across the country.