Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), is up for multiple awards at the Academy Awards on March 2, including Directing and Best Picture. Penned a decade ago by Whidbey Island resident Bob Nelson, the script—about Woody, a septuagenarian played by Bruce Dern convinced he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes—is also a finalist for Original Screenplay. We caught up with Nelson at home by phone a week after the nomination announcement.
Your parents are from the Cornhusker State. What else in Nebraska is based on your family?
Woody isn’t exactly my father, but I certainly used him to start out. He was shot down in the war. He was an alcoholic. He was a mechanic who was always trusting people no matter how many times they stole his tools.
You have a small cameo in the film. Did you spend a lot of time on the set?
I was there for a week. I went just to observe and to take my mom because that’s the area she’s from and grew up in… so it was a treat for her. She was on the set for a few days herself and is “Woman Number One” going to the salad bar in the Karaoke scene. She has more time in the movie than I do.
Bruce Dern is up for an Oscar for his acting in the film. Who did you picture playing Woody when you wrote the script?
Just for a reference point, because he looked like my dad and is one of my favorite actors, Robert Duvall. When I was writing it there was never any thought that Robert Duvall would be playing the role. It was mainly just to get this image in my head.
You wrote for the local sketch comedy show Almost Live! How did that prepare you for writing the screenplay?
When you learn to create a world of characters in a story and have it pay off in three minutes, it teaches you to value every word in that sketch. Alexander said when he read Nebraska, not only did it seem economical, it seemed almost austere. A lot of scripts don’t get read past page five because they’re so dense with things that aren’t needed.
How does it feel to be "Oscar-nominated screenwriter Bob Nelson"?
It was hard to comprehend when I’d see my name bandied about with David O. Russell, Woody Allen, and Spike Jonze. I thought, Well, if I don’t get nominated, at least there was this time where I was included in the conversation. I’ve had one of the worst colds in my life since last Thursday, and I haven’t really been able to come out of the fog to experience it quite yet. Maybe my head will explode once I’ve cleared this cold.