Alexander Payne’s US Midwest in black and white

“My name is Constantinos Alexandros Papadopoulos,” says Alexander Payne right at the start of our discussion on his Greek heritage. The 52-year-old Nebraska-born filmmaker often mentions Greece in interviews as an important part of his childhood – both his parents were of Greek decent.

His latest and sixth feature film, “Nebraska,” a black-and-white homage to the American Midwest that has been nominated for six Oscars, is all about family and Payne’s reverence for the past is more than apparent in the way he portrays the troubled relationship between a man and his narrow-minded father. “Nebraska” may be a realistic portrait of life in the rural Midwest, but the tenderness and incisiveness displayed show that behind the camera is a director accustomed to observing human nature and commenting on human ties.

Payne does not speak Greek, though he admits that a certain “Greekness” runs through his veins. “These Greeks,” he smiled, “make sure that you never forget your identity even two generations later.”

Payne’s father was the eldest of six or seven children and his family emigrated to the United States sometime between 1910 and 1911, Payne explains of his roots. In 1915, he opened a pastry shop near Omaha in Nebraska, at a time when there was a lot of animosity toward Greeks as a Greek man had shot a police officer, sparking widespread riots. The young emigre was just 20 years old at the time and decided to go by a more Americanized version of his surname Papadopoulos, choosing Payne.

“There are many ‘closet Greeks’ in Nebraska,” Payne says. “Like all good Greek children, I would go to Greek school in the afternoons after regular school. Whenever I traveled [to Greece] I was always embraced by the entire family. I have relatives, uncles and cousins. Recently, in fact, I got in touch with my mother’s family, who are from Syros.”

“Nebraska” is a family tale centered on the relationship between David (played by Will Forte) and his elderly father Woody (Bruce Dern) who suffers from senile dementia. The 76-year-old is convinced that he has won a million dollars in a sham sweepstake. David takes it upon himself to drive his father to the town of Lincoln where the marketing agency running the sweepstake is located in a bid to convince his father that it is all a pipe dream.

Payne takes us on a road trip through the Midwest, showing an aging population, obese youths, lives abandoned to the lure of television.

Phedon Papamichail’s black-and-white photography provides poignancy to the often comic tale of a family’s and a region’s travails.

Director and cinematographer peel away the layers of the troubled relationship between the father and son to reveal what lies underneath: love and a sense of dignity that has been lost by both but is rediscovered during their time together.

Payne, director of critically acclaimed films such as “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” knows how to look at people with a sense of humor, with compassion and tenderness. In “Nebraska” he embraces an aging man just before his fall – and saves him.

In a recent interview you quoted your mother as saying that anyone who tried to film the state of Nebraska in color would be a fool.

It felt right to do the film in black and white. You have to see it to agree, or disagree, with my mother. But I am saddened by the fact that black and white is seen as noncommerical.

You have set four of your six feature films in Nebraska. Why is that?

Nebraska is not a village. It is a big state. I believe that everything is everywhere. You can make a movie anywhere. If you taste one drop of the ocean, you have tasted it all. As long as you study and get a taste for the location. Yasujiro Ozu made films in Tokyo and Fellini in Rome, and I make movies in Omaha. It doesn’t make a difference. Local is also global.

If you had to describe the difference between Omaha and, say, New York, what would it be?

Humility. It may sound cliche, but there it is. Consumerism is very apparent on the two coasts of the US. People feel like they have to show off beyond their means. In the Midwest, though, you don’t want to stand out; you want to keep a low profile. [Business magnate] Warren Buffett has lived in the same house since 1958, when he bought it. He lives two blocks away from my parents, in his old neighborhood.

Your protagonists tend to be either elderly or middle-aged. What fascinates you about these age brackets?

From early on in life I was concerned by the question of what it’s like to grow old and have no regrets. Maybe these films are a way for us to consider this question of living life without regrets. The same question keeps cropping up: Am I doing the right thing with the short, really very short, time that I have on Earth? I don’t know what else to say. I’m not a sociologist. Whether consciously or not, artists are society’s doctors. Not surgeons. They can see what’s wrong. They can make a diagnosis and draw attention to the problem. But they cannot make any incisions.

What do you think about Hollywood’s obsession with youth?

It’s starting to change, you know, in the film industry. This reverence of youth is coming to an end, because the industry recognizes that the average age of the audience in movie theaters is getting older.

Is this because the younger generation watches films on their computers and phones, for example, rather than at the theater?

I can’t answer or comment on whether this is better of worse. I don’t know. What is amazing, however, is that films are not lost as they once were. You can see what you want at any given moment on your cell phone.

The world is changing fast, at speeds we sometimes can’t keep up with.

I don’t go to a shrink; I’m too busy. But there is bad busy and good busy. Bad busy is when it cuts you off from the truth of life. You need to give yourself time to calm down, to think, to find yourself. When the mind works overtime, the ego has no time to relax. Most people can’t just sit in a chair for 20 minutes. That’s why I love family meals in Greece. They go on for hours.

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