Bob Nelson is a household name here in Seattle, as he appeared on a late-night sketch show called Almost Live! in Seattle. Writing and acting in some of the skits, Nelson worked alongside John Keister, Nancy Guppy, Bill Nye (The Science Guy), Ed Wyatt, and Joel McHale. The show ran from 84 – 99 and after that, Nelson and Keister went on to The John Report with Bob for two seasons. Clearly, Nelson had a gift for writing and it’s that very gift that would lead him to write Nebraska, the story of an older man seeking purpose in his life who finds that purpose in a million dollar prize. All he has to do is travel down to Lincoln to collect his earning, but his son who realizes that it’s a scam, tries to stop him. Ten years ago, Alexander Payne had committed to turning Nelson’s screenplay into a feature film; at the time, he’d planned to do Sideways, his on-the-road film about two middle-aged men who go wine tasting before one is to be married. Not wanting to follow Sideways with another buddy film, Payne decided to film The Descendants first, promising Nelson that Nebraska would follow. Now, that time has come and Nelson has finally seen his words appear in one of the year’s finest films, that will surely be a contender at this years Academy Awards. I was extremely fortunate to get a chance to interview Mr. Nelson, and below are the questions and responses from my interview with him. This was an amazing opportunity and Mr. Nelson is the most humble of men. Please read and enjoy!
(This interview was originally published on nicktiffany.com on November 25, 2013.)
Nick Tiffany: I loved Woody’s one-track- mind and belief in older customs, such as the belief that you can’t print something that isn’t true. What was your focus with Nebraska and the printed truth that you wanted to tell?
Bob Nelson: The theme I started with was forgiveness — that we can never truly know what another person has gone through in life, and that if we can’t understand them, we can at least show them as much compassion and respect as possible. Woody has shut down in part because the code he lived by is no longer relevant.
Growing up in Seattle, I’ve always been surrounded by quirky people who often reserve judgment. Kate’s outspoken nature and way of calling it as she sees it allows for lots of laughter due to her bluntness. Had working with Midwesterners, in contrast with working with Northwesterners, helped you form Kate’s character?
The woman I based Kate on came from Texas, and I had a very smart and funny aunt in Nebraska who called it as she saw it, so I think you’re right that her type would be unusual to encounter in the outwardly polite Northwest. We usually wait until we’re home behind closed doors before we say what we really think.
In a film culture that is so focused on the stories of middle-aged men and women, how important is it to tell the stories of the young and old?
Film, even more than TV, is dependent on appealing to the broadest possible audience, and increasingly dependent on foreign sales, which means action and CGI. For younger stories that works for Harry Potter and not much else. For older stories, not at all. One reason I respect filmmakers like Alexander Payne is because they’re fighting to tell stories about people we usually don’t see in films, which is extremely important. That’s why I’m currently writing original scripts featuring a black lead, a female lead, an older lead, and one that features Native Americans.
How far would you go to let a loved one follow a false trail, as long as it gave them some sense of purpose?
About as far as David goes in Nebraska. Just this side of hurting themselves or others. Woody is based on my dad, and during my teenage years I had to indulge his delusions quite a bit, but eventually you have to draw the line.
What have been the biggest advantages and disadvantages of switching from skits to screenplays?
The biggest advantage in writing screenplays is to the ability to add drama, a real story, to explore some themes about life. Skits can give instant commentary on current events or mores, which is gratifying and fun. Writing screenplays is not as fun, or as instantly gratifying, but there is some satisfaction in working out a story that holds together for an hour and forty-five minutes. It’s like working out a puzzle.
What was your initial reaction when you discovered that Alexander Payne would be filming your screenplay, and what was your reaction after filming had wrapped?
My initial reaction was surprise and relief. There were many ways that a director could have gone with the material, but I knew about Alexander and was confident he would choose the humanistic approach to the story. I had only seen Election at that point (About Schmidt was about to come out), and while I loved that movie, my reaction was based as much on interviews he had given in which he professed a desire to make films about ordinary people, and that he was inspired by the same films I was in the 70′s that were reality based, explored ideas and were character driven. He did not disappoint.
Nebraska has a great balance of comedy and drama. Neither are overstated and their “simplicity” is executed very well. What was your inspiration for the family’s interactions?
I started by filling a notebook with real stories and characters from my immediate and extended families. There seems to be a universal reaction to anything dealing with true family dynamics, so my hope was that everyone could relate to these characters, even though the inspirations were people who were very specific to my experience.
The ending of Nebraska had me smiling from ear-to-ear. It’s certainly not an “out” for the film and I’m curious to know if you had planned the ending before the story had taken form?
Some writers say they don’t know the ending of their story when they begin, but I always need to. So I did have the drive through Hawthorne planned out early on, although Alexander in his rewrite modified it and took it to another level.
David gives his father a lot of advice, but Woody still manages to help David see things through a different light. What’s the best advice that you father has given you?
To not try to take shortcuts. That you must put in the effort, do the work, to get the results you want.
While Kate and David may not have fully supported Woody’s decisions, they helped him regardless. How supportive is your family of your work?
For the most part my family is very supportive, especially my wife, my mom, and one of my brothers who finds things on the internet that I’ve never seen.
One thing I loved about Woody is that he held firm to his beliefs, despite the fact that they may be wrong. When have you ever rejected all other opinions and stayed true to YOUR beliefs when making a film?
On studio assignments, rejecting all other opinions is not an option – you’re a craftsman trying to build something to suit the client. A few years ago I did take out an original script for me to direct. The producers and I couldn’t agree on casting and I eventually let the option lapse. I plan to take the script back out again after Nebraska’s run, but my stubborn stand may mean I’ll never get that movie made.
Lastly, are there any future projects that you’re able to talk about? I’m extremely excited to see where your work takes you next!
The first one I have out is The Tribe, about a guy hired to be the coach of the girls’ softball team at a Native American school. Joel McHale is attached to star and Mr. Mudd (John Malkovich’s production company, who made Juno) is producing. I’ve just finished writing The Confirmation, a modern twist on The Bicycle Thief.
Mr. Nelson, thank you so much for this opportunity. Your screenplay moved me and it’s easily one of the year’s best. You have an incredible voice in your story and I’m eagerly awaiting the next script of yours to be adapted for the silver screen. Until then, I wish you all the best with your writing and I am confident that your great talent will be recognized quickly! Thanks again!
Thanks for the great questions and the nice words about Nebraska. Let me know if you need anything else.
Earlier, I mentioned that Bob Nelson was a humble man. A few days after I finished the questions for our interview, I ran into Mr. Nelson by chance. I was at a screening for a film in Seattle and it just so happened that he was at the neighboring theater for a screening of Nebraska. Upon hearing this news, I rushed over there to see if it was true and to see if I could meet Mr. Nelson. Before the film got out, the studio representative told me that Mr. Nelson had a press pass for a first-come, first-serve basis. It wasn’t until someone recognized him that he was rushed into the theater. Think about that. Mr. Nelson went to go see his own movie and patiently stood in line, when he could have easily told them who he was. For me, that says something about his amazing character. After the film got out, I introduced myself to Mr. Nelson and he was extremely welcoming. He told me that he would have to think hard about my questions, as he had been used to the generic ones he gets in most interviews. Mr. Nelson even went as far as to compliment me on my site and the quality of my reviews. Needless to say, I was ecstatic that he had looked at my work and his compliments meant the world to me. He offered amazing advice for writing screenplays and expressed his joy over his film being made. This is truly one of the greatest experiences of my life and it’s one that I will never forget. As far as you the reader is concerned, you shouldn’t forget to go see Nebraska in theaters before it’s too late!
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