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Review: Payne, Dern Raise Money for Film Streams

July 14, 2008

By Bob Fischbach, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Jul. 14–There they sat, the Oscar-nominated actress and the Oscar-winning screenwriter-director, in front of about 1,000 people at the Holland Performing Arts Center Sunday night.

“It feels oddly, wonderfully intimate,” Laura Dern said to her former director, Omaha native Alexander Payne, as their chat began around 8:30 p.m.

And, despite the crowd, it did. Two wood-frame chairs, a Persian rug, a simple white-globe pole lamp and a white orchid on a low table between them made the stage feel as close to an intimate corner as the cavernous hall could approximate.

They were there to help raise more than $150,000 for Film Streams, the nonprofit arthouse movie theater that opened a year ago downtown. About 600 attended a dinner, also at the Holland, that preceded the film chat.

After a film-clip montage of Dern’s career, the two spent just over 90 minutes talking about making movies, including their time together making Payne’s first feature-length movie, “Citizen Ruth,” in Omaha in 1996.

Payne called Dern not just an actress, but a film purist, someone who grew up on film sets.

Dern, 41, recalled deciding to be an actress at age 7.

“I spent my summer vacation going back and forth between two sets watching my parents (Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd) work with (director Martin) Scorsese and (director Alfred) Hitchcock. What I learned that summer was that you could do each take with variety, be extreme, be bold.”

She said Ladd, in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and Dern, in “Family Plot,” both played “deeply troubled characters in comedies. . . . It was a scientific experiment in humanity.”

Later, Laura Dern would become known for quirky roles in dark movies such as “Blue Velvet,”"Citizen Ruth,”"Rambling Rose,”"Wild at Heart” and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.” This year, she played former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in an HBO movie, “Recount,” about the 2000 presidential election.

“You only do roles with red flags,” Payne noted.

“I’ve made a lot of funny movies,” Dern replied. “I wonder how many people saw them and didn’t know they were funny.”

Dern recalled that, growing up, she was crazy about Lucille Ball as well as Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton in “All in the Family,” who also played deeply flawed characters in comedies.

“The miserable truth seemed the best fodder,” she noted.

“The best comedy plays with human foibles,” agreed Payne, who also has a reputation for dark humor, satire and flawed main characters in the movies he has co-scripted and shot, including “Election,”"About Schmidt” and “Sideways.”

Dern said Payne’s and writing partner Jim Taylor’s “Citizen Ruth” script, about a pregnant girl huffing paint fumes and deciding whether to have an abortion, made her press hard for the role of Ruth.

“We’ve talked about the importance of a character, finding subtlety, working with a tribe who understands your taste, wonderful irreverence and satire,” Dern said. “This movie had every single one of those ingredients. It’s my favorite filmmaking experience.”

The low-budget shooting schedule was grueling, she said, but fun. “And nobody (from the studio) was watching us. We had such freedom. We did whatever we wanted to do.”

The two talked about other directors she’s worked with: Robert Altman, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Peter Bogdanovich.

They talked about the process of choosing and finding a character. They took questions from the audience, written on cards.

“What’s your dream project?” Payne read from one card.

“To work with you again, Alexander,” she replied.

Also present Sunday night: Jim Taylor and his wife, Tamara Jenkins, who directed last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Savages,” as well as Payne’s film editor, Kevin Tent, and producer Cary Woods.

–Contact the writer: 444-1269, bob.fischbach@owh.com

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