Alexander Payne is shooting “Nebraska,” his fourth film set in his home state and the largest production to take place in Nebraska since his “About Schmidt’ was filmed here more than a decade ago.
Writer/director Payne’s seven-week shoot on the black-and-white film was scheduled to begin this week. It will star Bruce Dern as a growly father who wants his son, played by Will Forte, to take him from Montana to Lincoln to claim a sweepstakes prize. Some scenes will be shot in Lincoln and the remainder in Norfolk and surrounding small towns.
Nebraska is a common setting for movies, most of which are not filmed in the state. In the recent “Hope Springs,” for example, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep play a married couple from Omaha, but nothing in the picture was shot there.
The same holds true for “Badlands” and “Murder in the Heartland,” a movie and TV miniseries made about Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, and for “Boys Don’t Cry,” the film based on the life of Brandon Teena of Lincoln, for which Hilary Swank, who was born in Lincoln, won the best actress Academy Award.
Other films include a few scenes shot in the state, such as “Up in the Air,” which found George Clooney briefly in Omaha, and the Jim Carrey picture “Yes Man” that has some scenes at Memorial Stadium. More ridiculous is the Hollywood trick of borrowing signs and logos to imitate a location. So “Teen Wolf,” the Michael J. Fox werewolf comedy, is set in Nebraska with palm trees.
Over the last three-quarters of a century, a good number of feature films, made for TV movies and documentaries have been shot in Nebraska. (See list). Here are 10 of the most prominent, starting with the first major studio movie filmed in the state:
Boys Town, 1938. Nebraska's first movie was an award-winning hit. Spencer Tracy took the best actor Oscar playing Boys Town founder Father Flanagan, who befriends a boy played by Mickey Rooney. Shot over 12 days on the Boys Town campus in west Omaha, the film was nominated for best picture and won two Oscars, including Tracy’s, which is now in the Boys Town Hall of History. Boys Town received $5,000 from MGM before the production. After the film was a hit, donations to Boys Town fell because of a widespread notion that it had made money off the movie. To make up for the shortfall, MGM gave Boys Town $250,000 from the film’s proceeds. A follow-up, “Men of Boys Town,” was released in 1939.
Terms of Endearment, 1983. The most successful film made in Nebraska, “Terms of Endearment” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won five -- best picture; best director; best screenwriting for James L. Brooks; best actress for Shirley MacLaine; and best supporting actor for Jack Nicholson. The story of conflict between mother MacLaine and daughter, played by Debra Winger, was shot on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, at Lincoln General Hospital (now Bryan West Campus); the Holiday Inn Northeast (now GuestHouse Inn); the now-defunct Kay’s Restaurant; the Lincoln Municipal Airport; St. Mary’s Catholic Church; and at a house that since has been demolished.
Amerika, 1986. The most controversial picture made in Nebraska, “Amerika” was a 14½-hour miniseries that was set 10 years after a bloodless Soviet takeover of the United States that found star Kris Kristofferson leading a burgeoning resistance movement. “Amerika” was filmed primarily in Tecumseh, with some scenes shot in Seward, near Elmwood and in Lincoln -- at the train station and the old penitentiary. By far, the largest and longest production ever in Nebraska, “Amerika” cost somewhere between $35 million and $40 million. The Nebraska production lasted nine weeks, with actors, including Kristofferson, living here for two months while some members of the crew were in Nebraska for more than three months.
The Indian Runner, 1991. Written and directed by Sean Penn, “The Indian Runner” is based on “Highway Patrolman,” a song that appeared on Bruce Springsteen’s 1997 album “Nebraska” that took its title from a song about Charles Starkweather. That title, however, is likely one of the reasons that Penn shot his directorial debut in Plattsmouth and Omaha. The film about a pair of brothers starred the then-little-known David Morse as Joe, a deputy sheriff, who wears a Cass County uniform, and Viggo Mortensen as his troubled criminal brother Frank. The movie also is notable, as it is the last picture to feature Nebraska native Sandy Dennis, who died in 1992.
O Pioneers!, 1992. Willa Cather didn’t want movies made from her books, so no film adaptations of her now classic novels of the Plains were made until the books came into the public domain. Jessica Lange received a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Cather’s Alexandra Bergson in this Hallmark Hall of Fame production that also included David Strathairn and a young Anne Heche in its cast. Much of the filming was done in and around Johnstown, with some scenes shot in Clarkson’s city library and a nearby farmhouse.
My Antonia, 1994. The second Cather adaptation, a TV film from the USA Network, starred Jason Robards and Eva Marie Saint as Josiah and Emmaline Burden and a young Neil Patrick Harris as their son Jimmy. It was shot at Grand Island’s Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. More than 20 films, televisions shows and documentaries have used the museum’s railroad town as a location, including the Emmy-winning “Sarah, Plain and Tall” that starred Glenn Close and Christopher Walken. “My Antonia” also received a prime-time Emmy for best cinematography.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, 1994. This comedy about three drag queens who find themselves stranded in a small-town hotel was shot in tiny Loma in the summer and fall of 1994 with the crew and cast members, including stars Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes commuting the 45 minutes from Lincoln on most of the 85 days of shooting “It is a town we could work in almost like a backlot, with the full support of the town,” producer G. Mac Brown said. “It worked as well as any place could have worked.” Some scenes for the movie were also shot in Omaha and Lincoln. “To Wong Foo” is the last major production to be based in Lincoln.
Citizen Ruth, 1995. Alexander Payne filmed his directorial debut in his hometown of Omaha and ventured across the Missouri River to shoot some scenes in Council Bluffs. The abortion satire is about a poor, uneducated pregnant woman who finds herself in the middle of a pro-choice/pro-life battle. Ruth was played by Laura Dern, whose father Bruce Dern is one of the stars of “Nebraska.” “Citizen Ruth” was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, helping to launch Payne’s career.
Election, 1997. Payne’s second film earned him his first Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay, along with his partner Jim Taylor. The movie is the story of a high school election in which teacher Matthew Broderick sets up football player Chris Klein, an Omaha native who was discovered by Payne, to run against overachiever Reese Witherspoon, who earned a best actress Golden Globe nomination for her performance. “Election” was primarily shot at Papillion-LaVista High School, with other scenes filmed across Omaha, including in the Dundee neighborhood, where Payne grew up.
About Schmidt, 2001. Payne brought Jack Nicholson back to Nebraska to star in this film about a retired Omaha insurance man who takes an RV journey across Nebraska and Kansas to his estranged daughter’s wedding in Denver. Much of “About Schmidt,” including many of the scenes said to be in Denver, was filmed in Omaha. Dundee provided some of the locations as did Millard. Other scenes were shot in Lincoln (with the UNL campus standing in for the University of Kansas), Louisville State Park and at the Great Platte River Archway near Kearney. Nicholson and Kathy Bates received Oscar nominations for their performances in “About Schmidt.”