Former 'Almost Live!' star steps into Oscar limelight with 'Nebraska' screenplay

On Sunday night screenwriter Bob Nelson will be seated in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards. His movie “Nebraska” is up not only for his screenplay but also for five other Oscars, including Best Picture.

Heady stuff for a self-described “boy from Kent.”

Nelson, 57, joined the cast of local sketch comedy show "Almost Live!" in 1989. After the show ended, he worked for a year on Bill Nye’s “The Eyes of Nye” on KTCS and later teamed up with fellow “Live” alumnus John Keister for “The John Report with Bob” on KIRO.

A producer on “The Eyes of Nye” sent Nelson’s “Nebraska” script to Hollywood producers and eventually into the hands of multiple Oscar-winning director Alexander Payne.

The film follows a somewhat confused elder, played by Bruce Dern, as he tries to collect the $1 million he thinks he won in a marketing campaign disguised as a sweepstakes contest. His son, played by Will Forte, takes him on a road trip from Montana to Nebraska to mollify his father.

The News Tribune caught up with Nelson from his Whidbey Island home.

Question: Where did the story of “Nebraska” come from?

Answer: The story about the sweepstakes came from a news article back in the late ’90s. When it came time for me to write a movie script, that’s the only idea I had, so I went with that. I filled in the rest of the story with family and real stories from growing up and the towns in Nebraska where my family is from. The main character is based on my dad.

Q: How long did it take to get the film made after you wrote it?

A: I wrote it in 2002. It was optioned in 2003 and Alexander Payne became attached quickly after the option. He told us he was up to shoot a movie called “Sideways,” and “Nebraska” will not even be the movie after that because “I’m tired of shooting in cars.” But he kept to his promise. We just didn’t know it would take him seven years to make “The Descendants” and a couple more (movies.)

Q: How much of what you wrote do we see on the screen in “Nebraska”?

A: The story and the character and the structure was pretty intact. Alexander did his own rewrite just before he went to shoot it. I did one rewrite based on his notes. But it’s as close to what any writer is going to get in Hollywood. I’ve been very lucky.

Q: I like that the movie is comedic without being slapstick and poignant without being sappy. How do you resist making a typical pandering Hollywood film?

A: I was thinking of the filmmakers I enjoyed growing up in my formative years. In the ’70s there was Hal Ashby and Woody Allen and Horton Foote and even before then Billy Wilder. They were able to combine a natural humor with the dramatic. I was just trying to do the kind of script that they had written and I admired. That’s to me what life is: It’s tragic and funny all at the same time. I tried to temper the comedy a bit because that’s my background.

Q: It’s an unusual film in that it focuses a lot on seniors. You give them dignity but without pulling punches. There are ugly senior moments. Were you tempted to write a script with hot babes and 24-year-olds?

A: Even when I was on “Almost Live” I never thought of writing for 24-year-olds. I just wanted to write whatever struck me. When it comes to screenplays I think it’s a mistake to be too calculating. I just wrote what I wanted to see on the screen. It’s probably harder to get a movie like this made, but when you have an Alexander Payne to shepherd it, when you have a bona fide production to protect it, you’ve really hit the jackpot.

Q: Did you have a say in the casting or the decision to film it in black and white?

A: No. All of that is Alexander’s call. He did have to talk to the studios about the black and white. That came up early in their discussions and he did have to take a cut in his budget for that. Alexander is so good at casting with his casting director John Jackson that I didn’t worry too much about that.

Q: When did someone first say the word “Oscar” to you?

A: That came in quite a bit later. When Alex first signed on, “About Schmidt” had just come out. I think he was nominated for writing “Election” but he hadn’t established a string of nominations yet. Then he won a couple of Oscars. Even then, “Nebraska” seemed small by comparison. When it was accepted in Cannes in May is when that worry started to show up.

Q: Worry?

A: He’s established this reputation for getting nominated and now it’s in Cannes and running the gauntlet of reviews and who knows what else. I just wanted the film to be out there and talked about as a film before people started talking about it as this award entity.

Q: Tell me about the morning when you heard you were nominated.

A: I was already in L.A. for some other events. My wife and I were at the hotel and I basically told her — she’s always up at that time anyway — if I’m in, you can come shove me awake and if I’m not in, you can just let me sleep and I’ll wake up and it’ll be light out and I’ll know I didn’t make it. That would the cruel light of reality seeping in through the shades. Fortunately, I got the wake-up call.

Q: What do you think is going to be going through your mind on Oscar night when the screenplay nominations are being read?

A: I’ll just think of family and friends who this means a lot to — the nomination. “Nebraska” seems to be a long shot of winning, so I’m trying to brace all my family and friends who don’t have their ear to the Hollywood gossip. This is about as far as this is going to go, so just enjoy this part of it. I’ll think of all my friends at “Almost Live” and how I wouldn’t be down in Hollywood on March 2 if I hadn’t got my start there. My mom still lives in Kent and has a bit part in the movie. She was on set for a whole week back in Nebraska where she grew up.

Q: Will you have a speech ready?

A: I was at the Golden Globes and I was a long shot for that as well. Such a long shot that I was one of those people who didn’t write an acceptance speech. Just as Emma Thompson was starting to read the names it occurred to me sometimes a 100-to-1 long shot comes in. There was that fleeting moment.

Q: Well, I hope you find yourself at the podium Sunday night, kicking yourself because you didn’t write a speech.

A: I got my money on David O. Russell (“American Hustle”) or Spike Jonze (“Her”). But you never know. You could be right. I should be ready.