November 15, 2013
When it comes to dark humor and satirical depictions of society, director and screenwriter Alexander Payne knows how to get it just right. His latest film, entitled “Nebraska,” opens with main character Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) walking by himself alongside a highway. Woody is traveling from Montana to Nebraska to collect the “million-dollar prize” that he believes he has won from a postcard that he received in the mail.
The black and white drama focuses on relationships, relatives and deep-rooted emotions—yet it’s the beautiful honesty that shines through in “Nebraska,” and it was this honesty that the film’s Costume Designer Wendy Chuck hoped to convey through her costumes.
Appearing sad and shrunken, Woody looks as though his life has wildly diminished from what it once was. “I needed to turn Dern, who is a tall, statuesque Hollywood icon, into Woody, a weathered Midwestern man in his 80s who is not only losing his mind, but also has lived a long hard life and is regretful of his body and how he looks. I really wanted his clothes to reflect the ‘wear’,” Chuck says.
Shot on-location in the plains of Nebraska during the fall, Chuck was not only challenged by the colder weather, but also by the lack of stores and resources in the small town of Norfolk (where the film was staged), which has a population of only 26,000 people. With only four weeks of prep and two days to fit Dern, Chuck sourced many of Woody’s key pieces at local stores and thrift stores including JC Penney and The Salvation Army. It was at the Norfolk Salvation Army that she found “the one,” a late 1960s-early 1970s “pre-loved” grey poly-cotton vintage jacket that had just the right look. With wool knit on the collar, woven cuffs and mismatched bindings, Chuck knew that she would have to have a duplicate made, as it would be impossible to find an exact replica of the treasured find.
Rounding out Woody’s wardrobe are baggy, worn Levi jeans in a specific medium wash, “not too bleached out and not too dark,” of which Chuck purchased several pairs. She paid close attention to the little details and nuances of the character, making sure that all of his pants were frayed at the back of the heel, as though they were just too long and continually dragged under the soles of his boots. She also had the pockets sanded in the spots where Woody would’ve kept his wallet, to reflect years of age and wear-and-tear.
Considering that Woody had been a mechanic for most of his life, Chuck carefully selected his shoes. She searched for sturdy (yet worn) brown work boots, which she describes as “old man, classical yet sporty with a comfortable sole, that could be [worn to] work all day and in the snow.”
Taking the cold weather into account, Chuck layered long-sleeve waffle undershirts with warmer button-down flannels. At JC Penney she found a selection of various brightly colored flannels, which would aid in creating greater visual depth when shown on-screen in black and white. Although the shirts were vastly different in color and pattern, when presented on-screen in black and white, they appeared uniform.
Like Woody, the movie conveys a real “lived-in intimacy,” portraying a life that does not seem to experience much in the way of change, yet is unique and unforgettable nonetheless.
“Nebraska” opens in select theaters nationwide today.