YOU’D NEVER ask Spike Lee or Woody Allen why they make their movies in New York City, and that’s what Nebraska native and movie director, producer and screenwriter Alexander Payne told me bluntly but politely when I asked him that question that immediately sounded so stupid: “Why do you make movies in Nebraska?”
Was I starstruck? I don’t know, but the director gave me a second take. “Artists enjoy a lifelong exploration of their roots,” Payne said. “William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and then returned home to his small town in Mississippi and continued writing. I feel a mysterious connection to my roots, so whenever I can, I come home to work.”
Payne is known for directing critically acclaimed dark comedies such as About Schmidt, which starred Jack Nicholson and was partially filmed in Nebraska. Last year, he won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for the hugely successful movie he also directed, The Descendants, which starred Hollywood hunk and fellow director George Clooney. This fall Payne is back in Nebraska filming a movie called Nebraska.
Payne can trace his Nebraska roots to 1913 when his grandfather Nicholas Papadopoulos moved to Lincoln after emigrating from Greece and living briefly in Boston. In 1915, he anglicized the family name to Payne. He married Clara Rose Hoffman, a native of Hooper, and for 50 years the couple ran Virginia Restaurant on Douglas Street in Omaha. His great-grandfather Charles Hoffman started the Wahoo Bakery in Wahoo.
Payne grew up in Omaha, and after the infamous 1975 Omaha tornado damaged Lewis and Clark High School where young Alexander was a student, he enrolled at Creighton Preparatory School with the intention of staying only until his school was repaired. “We weren’t Catholic, but I liked it there,” Payne said. “So I broke with tradition and stayed.”
Following high school, Payne left Omaha to attend Stanford University, majoring in history and Spanish. Even though he was away from Nebraska, Payne’s roots continued to hold him close to his home state.
“I had always dreamed of shooting movies in Nebraska,” Payne said.
Five years after receiving his master of fine arts degree from UCLA Film School, Payne began work on the comedy Citizen Ruth, the story of a wayward young woman, played by Laura Dern, who finds out she is pregnant and ends up in the middle of a national abortion debate. Nebraska viewers will notice the Nebraska license plates on vehicles in the film; it was the first of his features filmed here. Payne followed it with another Nebraska production, Election, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, filmed in 1999 in Omaha, Elkhorn, Bellevue and Papillion. Then came About Schmidt in 2002, with locations that included Omaha, Kearney, Minden, Nebraska City, Ogallala and Lincoln. Both films included scenes shot in Payne’s childhood stomping grounds of Omaha’s Dundee neighborhood.
“Because of journalistic leanings, I like to capture a strong sense of place in my films,” Payne said. “I like to cultivate a documentary approach – well, as much as is possible in a commercial film.”
“In my first three films, I was trying to capture that elusive sense of place. My other films, shot in places like California and Hawaii, wouldn’t have been as successful in capturing a sense of place if I hadn’t first worked in Nebraska,” he said.
Even though he travels the world from one exotic set locale to another, for Payne, Omaha is home. It’s where his parents, George and Peggy Payne, still live, and he keeps his Oscars there, too. Even when he’s at his other residence in Los Angeles, Nebraska, and more specifically old Omaha, is in his thoughts.
“I have a massive collection of old Omaha postcards,” Payne said of his assemblage that also includes photographs, stereoviews and promotional materials. Half of the thousands of items Payne has collected are at his Los Angeles home; the other half are in Omaha.
“Some of these are one-of-a-kind glimpses into yesteryear,” Payne said. “I don’t want to reveal myself to my eBay enemies,” he said with a grin, “but I just bought a ton of original old Omaha photos taken by the Chicago Tribune long ago. They are mostly weather photos. Back then it took blizzards and tornadoes to get Nebraska into the national news.”
Payne said he “dreams” of old downtown Omaha and it would be the fulfillment of a dream to make a movie about old Omaha, to use digital technology to travel back in time. “I just need the right screenplay,” he said.
Part of the old Omaha that Payne loves is in the building he co-owns at 315 1/2 S. 16th St. It dates to 1880, and the landmark structure has housed many well-known Omaha businesses. Perhaps the best known is its current second-floor tenant, the King Fong Cafe. Founded in the 1920s, it’s the oldest Chinese restaurant in Nebraska and one of the two oldest continuously running restaurants in Omaha. The other is Johnny’s Cafe.
Currently, Payne’s window on the world is 100-plus miles from his Omaha apartment. He’s in Norfolk and northeast Nebraska working on his fourth movie to be set in the state. The Paramount Productions film, Nebraska, will be in black and white and follows a father and son as they journey together across the Heartland to redeem a winning lottery ticket. Among the locations in Nebraska where Nebraska will be filmed are Norfolk, Osmond, Stanton, Lyons, Creighton, Plainview and Lincoln.
Laura Dern’s father, Bruce Dern, stars in the production along with other veteran actors like Stacey Keach and Will Forte. Many of the other roles will be filled by ordinary, everyday Nebraskans.
“I always wanted to see Nebraskans on film, as though the people I know here matter,” Payne said. “Because I believe they do.”
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