US National Board of Review Awards Gala, part 1.

Emma Thompson, Nebraska and Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Nebraska producers Albert Berger with Ron Yerxa on Alexander Payne: "He prides himself on the verisimilitude…"
Nebraska producers Albert Berger with Ron Yerxa on Alexander Payne: "He prides himself on the verisimilitude…" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

On Tuesday, January 7, the coldest one since 1896, or ever, that I can recall, celebrated filmmakers turned out for the 2014 National Board of Review Awards Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York. On the red carpet, I asked them about storytelling and heard about great teamwork. Alexander Payne's Nebraska was one of the big winners with the Best Actor award going to Bruce Dern and Best Supporting Actor to Will Forte.

August: Osage County star Meryl Streep presented the Best Actress award to Emma Thompson. She was honored for her performance as J.T. Travers, author of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks. John Lee Hancock's film deals with Travers’ battles with Walt Disney portrayed by Tom Hanks.

Abdellatif Kechiche's leads in his vivid Blue Is The Warmest Colour (La vie d'Adèle), Léa Seydoux with co-star Breakthrough Performance winner Adèle Exarchopoulos graced the red carpet.

Alexander Payne was not in town for the Gala. I received the following in an email from Alexander this morning:

”Thank you for the note. Ron [Yerxa] and Albert [Berger] are such nice guys and thoughtful producers. As for Bruce and Will, it was beautiful to watch such an accomplished old pro together with an actor new to drama. The father-son relationship had a manifestation even there. But regardless of their experience, both acted from an honest and sincere place which, I feel, made their on-screen relationship true.”

Best Supporting Actor Will Forte for Nebraska: "I just realized I'm going to have to give a speech tonight."
Best Supporting Actor Will Forte for Nebraska: "I just realized I'm going to have to give a speech tonight." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

I did have a chance to speak to his Nebraska producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Were you surprised at how beautiful Nebraska looked in black and white?

At the 51st New York Film Festival press conference Payne said: "Every day the DP and I would look at each other and say, ‘How could we possibly go back to colour?’ Our great film heritage is in black and white. Not only that, it was my first CinemaScope picture. I had shot widescreen before, but only super 35. My first time using old CinemaScope lenses, and that was a treat, too."

Ron Yerxa: Well, not really surprised. Phedon Papamichael is quite an excellent DP and they scouted a lot and did a lot of tests. We thought it would look great and it ended up that way.

Albert Berger: We looked at a lot of movies like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, and, you know, some of Jim Jarmusch's work. We loved the scope of Bogdanovich's films and we thought those were all very good models.

AKT: It is quite a departure for Alexander Payne. The previous films, The Descendants for example, rather embraced the ugly.

Léa Seydoux with Breakthrough Performance winner Adèle Exarchopoulos for Blue Is The Warmest Colour.
Léa Seydoux with Breakthrough Performance winner Adèle Exarchopoulos for Blue Is The Warmest Colour. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the NYFF press conference Payne also spoke about his vision for Nebraska: "From the moment I read the screenplay [by Bob Nelson] many years ago, I always saw the movie in black and white. I can't really say why, it just felt right. I knew it would have to be a relatively inexpensive movie. They are hard to get made through the studio system. And how does it help storytelling? It’s just so darn beautiful."

AB: That is exactly right. It was very conscious. It was the first thing he said reading the script ten years ago when he wanted to make it black and white and I think part of his impulse was to do something more formal.

AKT: Great films and ugly, that's what I meant. He holds up a mirror of truth.

AB: Yes, exactly. He prides himself on the verisimilitude and making America look like America looks. But this was one where he wanted a more photographic approach. I think you are exactly right.

Producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa mentioned their upcoming project called Low Down [directed by Jeff Preiss] with John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, and Glenn Close about a renowned jazz piano player, told from the daughter's point of view about growing up with, as Albert Berger put it, 'this gifted but very disturbed guy - a father daughter love story."

Alexander Payne's The Descendants with George Clooney did not shy away from showing all the ugliness of a Hawaiian paradise lost. Nebraska is a departure into beauty for Payne - the landscape, the small-town roads, the traditional, if crumbling American houses of porches and spires summon movie images of the past, the land, and give the film a glow his previous archives of humanity did not show.

National Board of Review Awards Gala red carpet with Best Actress Emma Thompson for Saving Mr. Banks holding court.
National Board of Review Awards Gala red carpet with Best Actress Emma Thompson for Saving Mr. Banks holding court. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Bruce Dern, who compared Nebraska to "watching a moving scrapbook of Ansel Adams photographs", said about his director: "He’s a guy who insists you work with him, and he is so approachable and so natural and so insistent on reality and being honest. He surrounds you in every scene with two or three non-actors who are so goddamn honest you can’t possibly start acting or performing in front of these people." Will Forte, who plays Dern's son [David] interrupted: "I would like to stop being referred to as a non-actor."

Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a commanding painting of passions, relationships, and enlightenment with Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (Emma) making you feel like an intruder rather than a voyeur. Literature and the enormous influence of education in a person's life and loves are recurring themes. Kechiche's impressive oeuvre makes him one of the top directors working today. Quotidian, tragic, sensual, and absurd, his blue world merges the monumental with the minute.

The Disney canon has always been about protecting the father. Rather than blaming them, fathers are killed off at the start, such as Cinderella's dad in 1950, who is very much alive and uncaring in many versions of the folktale - or they are simply absent-minded and full of kindness while changing places with their beautiful daughter so that she has to live with a beast. In Saving Mr. Banks, we see the saving at work.

Ron Yerxa on Best Actor Bruce Dern for Nebraska: "He's a real pro and has a million great stories to tell."
Ron Yerxa on Best Actor Bruce Dern for Nebraska: "He's a real pro and has a million great stories to tell." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Emma Thompson held court at the National Board of Review Awards Gala red carpet. She told us about how brutal she finds The Little Mermaid who "sacrifices everything for love" and said about the author of Mary Poppins who reluctantly sold the film rights to Disney - "She needed the money. We laugh, but this was a woman who didn't have a family or husband and needed to make a living. She didn't want to let go of it, but out of economic necessity she had to. That's a very important part of a woman's life. She grew up in an era where an awful lot of women had to earn their own living or couldn't earn their own living. It's a very important part of the story, actually. Women and money."

AKT: Women and work.

ET: Yes, women and work. How do you get the money? How do you live?

In her speech presenting the award to Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep had a few choice words to say about Walt Disney and quoted one of his animators, Ward Kimball who said about his boss: “He didn’t trust women or cats.”

More on fairy tales during a magically cold evening with The Wolf Of Wall Street screenwriter Terence Winter, The Butler director, Lee Daniels, who presented the Best Directorial Debut award to Ryan Coogler for Fruitvale Station, and Creative Innovation in Filmmaking Award winning producer David Heyman for Gravity coming up.

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