John Ur returns for this week's edition of Cinematic Road Trip. Today's stop: Nebraska.
Every time I begin one of these columns, I chant the name of the state that I mentally try to inhabit and see if it fits a song like “Ooooooooklahoma.” Well Nebraska does not, as far as I know, serve as the title of any popular song, but the Counting Crows once sang of, “Omaha, somewhere in middle America, get right to the heart of matters. It’s the heart that matters more.” As in: Somewhere in middle America, believe it or not, there are actual people living out their lives.
This may come as a surprise to people fixated on the East and West Coasts, but not to Alexander Payne. Over the past decade, Payne has become a prominent writer-director on the backs of some strong movies—most recently, Sideways, which won him (and his writing partner, Jim Taylor) the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Payne grew up around Omaha but is not the first famous Hollywood figure to sprout from the city among the cornfields. He follows native Omahans Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, and Nick Nolte, all of whom also made their way to Tinseltown.
Payne must maintain a fondness for his home state. He’s adapted two novels set in east coast states to be shot around Omaha. In Election, Reese Witherspoon plays an over-achieving high school student running for Student Council President of Carver High School. Payne shot the high school scenes at Papillion-La Vista High School in Papillion, Nebraska, which is in the suburbs ten miles southwest of Omaha. (The original novel by Tom Perrotta is set in New Jersey.)
Although less critically acclaimed than Election, About Schmidt provides a greater view of the rest of Nebraska. In this film, Payne relocates Louis Begley’s novel from Long Island to Omaha and casts Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt, a retired assistant vice president for Woodmen of the World Insurance Agency. This is an actual company located on Farnam Street in Omaha.
After Schmidt retires, he and his wife plan to drive around in their
brand new Winnebago. Warren is left alone when his wife suddenly dies,
so he decides to take the Winnebago out to Denver, where his daughter
will soon be getting married. On his way, he passes through the plains of Nebraska, with it's many farms and quirky roadside icons like the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney and the Pioneer Village in Minden.
After About Schmidt came out, Nebraskans saw a spike in tourism
at the movie sites. But I have to wonder how well the film was received
by University of Nebraska alums. You see, Payne made an interesting
decision to have Warren visit his old alma mater, Kansas University,
in the film. Some Cornhuskers may be irked by seeing their archrival in
a truly Nebraskan movie. But then again, KU alums may be even more
displeased to know that the scenes at the “University” were actually
shot at the University of Nebraska! And Jayhawk fans thought that
Cornhuskers could only brag about inventing KoolAid.
Read More: Find other movies shot in Nebraska at the Nebraska Film Office’s site. Previously on CRT: The Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Photos: Kristen Coleman and Leslie Estelle