June Squibb, Stacy Keach and writer Bob Nelson talk <strong><em>Nebraska</em></strong> at the AFI Fest premiere

June Squibb, Stacy Keach and writer Bob Nelson talk Nebraska at the AFI Fest premiere

The AFI Fest in Hollywood is always a good barometer for the awards season, especially in its Gala Screenings section, where recent Best Picture Oscar winners such as The King's Speech and The Artist have been showcased before arriving in theaters. This year's festival is no different, with a slew of award season contenders such as Saving Mr. Banks and Out of the Furnace already debuting at the TCL Chinese Theater in the heart of Hollywood. Last night, perhaps the most subdued gala presentation took center stage with the premiere of Nebraska, director Alexander Payne's minimalist black-and-white drama about David Grant (Will Forte), who accompanies his father Woody (Bruce Dern) on a road trip to claim his supposed $1 million in sweepstakes winnings.

While it doesn't have the glitz, glamour and big budgets of many Oscar contenders, this authentic Midwestern tale is winning critical raves before its limited release in New York and Los Angeles November 15.

I had the chance to speak with screenwriter Bob Nelson, who makes his feature debut with this script after writing for TV shows such as The Eyes of Nye. When asked about what inspired him to write this script, he revealed that this story is loosely based on actual events.

"The sweepstakes idea actually happened. I heard about it. People would show up with their letters, who were afraid to put them in the mail. I had that in my head, that one day it might make a movie, so when I had the chance, I started writing it."

The writer revealed that it took quite a long time to finish the script, since he was used to writing in much smaller increments.

"I come from a sketch and comedy and joke background, and I had only written five-minute sketch before, so writing a full-length movie was very daunting. I thought, 'I've seen lots of movies, I'll jump right into it.' I got to page 20, and realized I didn't know what I was doing, and I stopped. It took about a year to finish it."

He also talked about how the producers originally went to Alexander Payne, thinking he might come on board as an executive producer, before he decided to direct it.

Bruce Dern and June Squibb in a scene from <strong><em>Nebraska</em></strong>
"I didn't have anybody in mind. It got to the producers, and it just so happened that they had worked with Alexander Payne on Election. They went to see if he would be an executive producer, or help find a director from the Midwest who could relate to the story, and he shocked all of us when he said he would direct it."

He also talked about how filming this in black and white helped accentuate an aspect even he wasn't aware of until recently.

"I love it in black and white. When I heard the original idea of doing that, I thought it was great, because I love all those old classic movies, and it has that timeless feel. Someone pointed out to me this week, there's not even a cell phone or computer in the movie. I hadn't even thought of that, and it has this feel that it could be set in any time."

June Squibb, who plays Woody's wife Kate, is being considered as a dark horse Oscar candidate herself. I asked the actress, who played Jack Nicholson's wife in Alexander Payne's 2002 drama About Schmidt, if the filmmaker's style has evolved at all in the 10 years since she last worked with the director. Here's what she had to say.

"He's grown 10 years, aged 10 years, and I think he's secure in what he does. I think he was before, but it's just like seeing someone age and be more secure in what they believe and what they think."

She also spoke about the decision to shoot the film in black and white.

"I think everybody thought it was a good idea. I did. I'm from the Midwest, originally, and I just thought, 'Boy, this country does look black and white and grey.' The greens aren't as vivid."

Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach converse over beers in <strong><em>Nebraska</em></strong>
When asked about working with this talented cast, which also includes Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach, June Squibb revealed her son was most interested inBob Odenkirk while praising the cast.

"I am thrilled to have worked with Bruce and Will and Bob Odenkirk. My son watches Breaking Bad and he wasn't interested in anybody else but Bob Odenkirk. It's just a wonderful cast."

June Squibb also revealed an amusing sweepstakes story from her own family.

"Well, when my mother and father became ill, I was in New York, but my husband and I would go back. I found my mother had these piles of magazines. I said, 'Mother, what are you doing with all these magazines?' She said, 'Well, if I buy them, I have more of a chance to win the million dollars.' I felt like Will in the film. You're crazy. You're never going to get a million dollars. I saw it myself.

I also spoke to Stacy Keach, who talked about shooting in Nebraska.

Will Forte, Bruce Dern, and Stacy Keach in <strong><em>Nebraska</em></strong>
"It was great shooting in Nebraska, meeting all those wonderful people, and getting the chance to experience that culture. The rhythm of life is so much slower than it is here. I felt like that's the heart of America, in a way, and I think that this movie expresses many of those qualities."

The actor also touched on the black and white aspect, revealing that Paramount originally didn't want to go that route.

"It was the right way to go. I know Paramount didn't want to do it, they wanted to shoot in color, but when The Artist came out and won the Academy Award, and Alexander won for The Descendants, it was a whole different animal."

That about wraps it up for my coverage of the AFI Fest premiere of Nebraska, arriving in New York and Los Angeles theaters November 15.