February 5, 2014

Bob Nelson @ SCA

At the close of his Q&A in front of a packed house at SCA’s Ray Stark Theatre, writer Bob Nelson offered some very unconventional career advice, “Write your first screenplay when you’re in your mid-forties and make sure you work with Alexander Payne,” he said. “That’s my advice.”

Bob Nelson and Professor Mary Sweeney

Nelson, who is nominated for this year’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Nebraska (Payne, the movie’s director, is also nominated) spoke to students on February 4th about his unusually short route to becoming a nominated writer. The event was part of the Writing Presents speaker series, hosted by the Writing for Screen & Television Division. The Q&A was led by Mary Sweeney, who holds the Dino and Martha DeLaurentiis Endowed Professorship at SCA.

Nelson started his writing career for a public access sketch show in Seattle with fellow comedians Bill Nye (Bill Nye the Science Guy) and Joel McHale (Community). After years of writing sketch in the Pacific Northwest, Nelson decided it was time to “get serious” about writing.

“I had some friends in television and I asked them for advice and they told me to write a spec of Everybody Loves Raymond but, fortunately for me, all the execs were tired of that,” said Nelson. “My friends told me to write a feature to show that I could work with characters and Nebraska is the only idea I had. It’s literally the first screenplay I’ve ever written.” The script got into the hands of Nebraska-native Alexander Payne who was reading it as a possible project to executive produce. Instead, he attached himself to direct.

Nelson said that he considered his approach so unhip that it stuck out in the world of edgy comedies set in urban areas. “I’ve always liked small movies. I’ve always liked road movies,” continued Nelson. “The indie version. The really small budget movie would be just the father and the son in the car the whole time. It’d be a series of arguments. The thought of that film kept me from writing it because it took me a long time to elevate the idea past that. When I figured out they needed to go to the small town, that’s when it became a movie I wanted to see.”

"It's important for SCA students to have the opportunity to hear success stories like Bob Nelson's.  Bob was plucked from almost obscurity (in the Hollywood landscape) by Alexander Payne, who attached himself as director upon reading Bob's beautiful feature screenplay," said Sweeney. "It was an off beat story by a writer for a comedy show in Seattle, his first feature screenplay, that is now basking in the glow of six Oscar nominations.  If writers and directors are passionate about their vision for a film, it's possible to get the film made."

Bob Nelson and Professor Mary Sweeney

Nelson grew up in Seattle but has Nebraskan roots which he returned to to flesh out the world of the film. “When I was six weeks old, I left Nebraska. I said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ I had relatives on the farm, though, and they were depicted in the film. There were details like there being a Catholic cemetery and a Lutheran cemetery where my parents grew up. I’ve had to make it very clear that my Mother is nothing like the Kate character but, besides that, it’s very true. It’s not an area you see very much in film.”

In between Payne’s option and the actual filming of Nebraska, seven years passed where Nelson worked on several writing assignments. He is currently developing projects that he plans to direct.