The Descendants is Payne’s first feature in seven years. “It just happened. ’05 was a washout, ’06, ’07, ’08, a lot of that time was spent writing a screenplay with Jim Taylor that we haven’t made yet. Late ’08 I was so anxious to beat up on actors that I did a pilot [HBO’s Hung]. And then in ’09, I started work on this. It just happened, I don’t know where the time went.”

In March, the director returned to what he calls “River City” after a year divided between shooting in Hawaii and editing in L.A.; he’s preparing to shoot a new Nebraska–set film, the above-mentioned Downsizing, next spring. A cheap flight brought me to Omaha early, two days before my lunch with Payne was scheduled. This gave me ample time to hoof it around the setting of Payne’s first three features—and on foot one can still find the grotty Omaha of those films, the city he gladly left behind for Stanford years ago. “At the time, there was a lot less going on in Omaha than there is now, and young people definitely felt a lot more ‘Get me out of this cowtown,’” he says. “Now people want to stay, and young people come back, but at the time it was . . . really great to leave.”

Omaha’s rising fortunes have matched Payne’s. The Woodmen Tower where Warren Schmidt wasted his life has been surpassed in height and corporate impersonality by the First National Bank Tower, seen going up in Schmidt. Another recent construction: Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater, a nonprofit repertory/art house film space founded in 2007, where Payne sits on the board of directors. He is, in middle age, a shameless booster. When I visit Payne at his downtown apartment, he is enthused at finding frozen guanabana at a newly discovered Peruvian grocery, a first in Omaha, and another testament to the city’s burgeoning cosmopolitanism. Later, from the promontory of his rooftop deck, he traces the geography of Old Omaha over a panoramic view of the New: A block north, there is the site where his grandfather and father operated a restaurant for 50 years; all around, the ghosts of long-ago-razed theaters, some of whose names, recited with pleasure, give a clear sense of moviegoing as Payne’s personal universe: “In the old days, that was The World, that was The Moon, and that was The Sun . . . ”

Payne at Omaha’s Ruth Sokolof Theater
Rebecca Gratz
Payne at Omaha’s Ruth Sokolof Theater


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As with many an educated provincial, Payne’s universe expanded exponentially when he left town. From Stanford, he went to a distinguished showing at UCLA’s film school, finishing the education begun in now long-gone movie houses. From here, he could’ve very easily left Omaha in the rearview—but instead he came back to film it as he saw it. “Jason Reitman came out here to shoot a couple days on Up in the Air—because the character was supposed to be based in Omaha. And he asked me later, ‘So what did you think of how I treated your city?’ And I said, ‘You didn’t. I didn’t see Omaha in there at all. I heard the name, but I didn’t see it.’”

As we’re increasingly asked to accept the outskirts of Vancouver or Toronto as Anytown, USA, Payne remains dedicated to pinning down regional particularities. The specificities of his last two source novels—Nebraska is not famous for its pinot—have taken him abroad, but he retains a keen eye for local variants. “I don’t know why; I’m very interested somehow in ‘a sense of place.’ . . . I hadn’t ever really seen Honolulu in a film, and that was one of the appeals of doing [The Descendants].” This meant Payne’s usual process of populating the film with locally sourced non-actors, all toward “getting that very specific, complex, kind of intimidating social fabric out there.”

Based on the debut novel by Hawaiian–born Kaui Hart Hemmings, much of the film’s humor comes from the antagonism between King, molded by old-money dictums of responsibility and never, ever drawing down his principal and the island’s prevailing “hang loose” attitude. Regardless of location, Payne brings certain Midwestern values with him: “By the way, that line where [King] says, ‘I agree with my father, you give your kids just enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing’? That’s stolen from Warren Buffett. That’s an Omaha line.”

You cannot throw a stone in the new downtown Omaha without hitting a statue of a covered wagon or bonneted settler woman—this is, after all, Willa Cather country. So, too, are Payne’s very contemporary films shadowed by history: Schmidt discussing Buffalo Bill Cody’s house or dwarfed by larger-than-life images of pioneers at the Kearny Arch museum, marveling at the fortitude of the early Westerners; Matt King contemplating the photographs of his royal ancestry in The Descendants, a film whose very title speaks to the looming presence of our never-past past. “There’s a discrepancy between self-image and the reality in front of them,” Payne explains of these characters, between “what’s expected—what one assumes is expected by forebears—and the reality.”

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