Thursday, January 23, 2014

Best Screenplay Nominee: NEBRASKA

NEBRASKA by Bob Nelson, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

LOGLINE - A disoriented alcoholic and his son travel across three states to claim a bogus sweepstakes prize.

WHO WROTE IT - In the 1990s, Bob Nelson wrote and appeared on Almost Live!, a sketch comedy show on Seattle’s local NBC affiliate KING, that aired in SNL’s time slot, pushing Will Forte's former show to a later starting time. Among the other cast members were Joel McHale (Community) and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Bob Nelson, nominated for Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (NEBRASKA)
Academy Award nominated screenwriter Bob Nelson
After Almost Live!, Nelson tested his luck in L.A. He decided to try writing a feature screenplay, instead of the standard TV spec episode, as a writing sample for TV gigs, ending up writing for Magic Johnson’s short-lived talk show, The Magic Hour.

HOW IT GOT MADE - Nelson wrote the first draft of Nebraska, his very first feature-length screenplay, in 2002, more than ten years ago. In 2003, he worked with Nye again on another show, whose producer showed the script to Ron Yerxa, producer of Alexander Payne’s Election.

Yerxa asked Payne for director recommendations, only to find out the Nebraska-born, Oscar-winning writer-director was interested in the script for himself. He just didn’t want to do it right away. After Sideways, he wasn’t ready to jump right back into another two-guys-in-a-car vehicle.
NEBRASKA director Alexander Payne won Oscars for co-writing the screenplay adaptations for his last two movies, SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS
Alexander Payne
Payne made The Descendants his next movie, and Nelson waited. In an uncredited rewrite, Payne “did a lot of work on Act One,” according to Nelson. In the first draft, David (Forte) worked in a cubicle and we didn’t know what his job was. Payne made him a stereo salesman and changed Ross (Bob Odenkirk) from an insurance salesman to a local news anchor, adding a hint of sibling rivalry. He told Variety he never pursued a writing credit.

Another draft has Phil Johnston’s name on it. Johnston wrote Cedar Rapids, which Payne produced, and Wreck-It Ralph.

WHO’S THE PROTAGONIST - Bruce Dern is the star, but the story is told through his son’s point of view. David goes on a journey that will bring him closer to his father. While Woody (Dern) is not the type of antagonist who’s trying to kill the hero, his antics certainly put up barriers to the story’s goal of bringing the two together.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte star in NEBRASKA

At the film’s midpoint, David learns, through a third party, of his father’s experiences in the Korean War. Woody had never spoken about it. David sees him in a whole new light, turning him toward a path of understanding and conciliation.

In most quest movies, the treasure is never really the point. The journey is the story. What’s unique about Nebraska is we know right from the beginning there is no pot of gold at the end of the road. We take the trip with David for the same reason he does: for the trip itself.

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW - Nelson’s family was from the Midwest. Like David, Nelson had never known, until adulthood, that his father, a mechanic, like Woody, had been shot down in the war.

WILL IT WIN - Payne has been on an Oscar hot streak. This is the fourth of his last five films to be nominated for its screenplay, his last two, Sideways and The Descendants, both taking home the Adapted prize. It’s also Payne’s third consecutive nod for directing.

However, Payne isn't the writer here. In fact, this is the first film he’s ever made that he didn't write, and his first since Citizen Ruth that was not based on a novel. So Payne-loving Academy members don't have to love the writing so much, and the script is in a category where Payne technically has no track record.

The film was nominated for a total of six Academy Awards (a three-way tie with Captain Phillips and Dallas Buyers Club for 4th place), including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Dern), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb), and for its black-and-white, widescreen digital photography.

Bruce Dern and Jane Fonda star in COMING HOME
Bruce Dern and Jane Fonda in 1978's Coming Home
When veteran actor Dern was lauded with the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his lead performance in Nebraska, he seemed destined for Academy gold 35 years after his first nomination for Coming Home. Now, other industry awards are indicating Matthew McConaughey is in the lead. Thus, if Oscar voters really liked Nebraska, honoring Squibb or Nelson might be the way they'll show it.

OTHER ACCOLADES - Outside the Academy, the script was nominated by BAFTA, the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards, the WGA, and the Critics’ Choice Awards, while the film scored dozens more nominations, including the prestigious Breakthrough Screenwriter award from the Platinum Brad Screenplay Awards.

READ THE SCREENPLAY - Payne’s 2011 draft was only 87 pages. The final production draft (click here to download a PDF) of the 115-minute movie is four pages longer.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE FIRST-TIME OSCAR-NOMINATED WRITER - Bob Nelson is currently trying to raise funds for The Tribe, a script he wrote for his Almost Live! friend, Joel McHale, which Nelson hopes to make his directorial debut. He also has a script at Pixar, a project with Chris Rock, and is working on a remake of the 2004 French thriller, Intimate Strangers.

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith (audio podcast)
Collider interview
IndieWire: What's Personal and What's Payne
Huffington Post interview
GoldDerby video chat

This is Part 1 of our 10-part series of profiles on this year's Oscar-nominated screenplays.

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