Nebraska in Black and White
Jun 29, 2015 08:00AM
By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
I was one of the millions of rabid Breaking Bad fanboys and girls who tuned in for the inaugural episode of Better Call Saul, the show’s prequel that follows sharp-tongued and ethically challenged attorney Jimmy McGill (alias: Saul Goodman).
Here at the magazine, there was extra excitement to see that first show. Some months back, our creative director, John Gawley, received a call from the show’s producers. The series begins where Breaking Bad left off—with Jimmy in his new life-on-the-lam managing a Cinnabon in Omaha (very long story). For this opening scene, producers wanted an Omaha Magazine sitting on the counter of the Cinnabon to, you know, make the Cinnabon look like it was in Omaha (it actually isn’t).
At two minutes and 28 seconds into the first episode—as Jimmy stands at the counter watching what could be a U.S. Marshal or cartel enforcer approaching him—you see copies of Omaha Magazine sitting on the countertop display.
Check it out online. You might have to play it in slow motion, squint, rewind a couple times. But I swear it’s there—three whole seconds of big-time screen time (Or 1/300th of one’s allotted 15 minutes of fame).
What was obvious from the first second of this opening scene, though, was a free plug for us, was actually a pretty harsh dis on Omaha. Most notable: The Nebraska scene is shot in black-and-white—not that Ansel Adams “capture the essential beauty” type of black-and-white, but rather that less-defined black-and-white that adds up to the grays of a Nebraska February. Jimmy had been banished to a colorless purgatory called Omaha.
Lighten up, right? Already have, I promise. It’s art, and it’s damn good art. Period. Same with Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, shot in a black-and-white that also ended up saying gray. It fit. It worked. But, argue all you want, Alexander: It was still a dreary and depressing landscape.
When Nebraska isn’t being shot in black-and-white, it is most often shrouded in overcast winter grays. Same diff, at least for me. Until being corrected recently, for example, I had remembered the Academy Award-winning Boys Don’t Cry, based on the murder of Tina Brandon near my hometown in southeast Nebraska, as having been shot in black-and-white. In fact, it’s a color film, I was reminded.
Fascinating. In my own mind, I had turned that movie black-and-white, likely because it matched my emotional response to the film. And, in my defense, the film certainly rarely ventured from gray.
It actually was Omaha filmmaker Nik Fakler who corrected me about Boys Don’t Cry. But Fackler, the director of Lovely, Still, a color film based in Nebraska starring Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, agreed that the mood of Boys Don’t Cry fits the historical stereotype of this landscape.
“The themes of Nebraska from the beginning have been bleak loneliness, Fackler said. “It’s an endless cold island in the middle of a vast lonely ocean of plains. There are no mountains, no jungles, or oceans. Its emptiness and nothingness.”
Fackler himself went to the jungles of Africa to shoot his latest film, Sick Birds Die Easy, which may be the American film most unlike Lovely, Still. It’s a wicked fevered acid trip of a film—a sort of Fear and Loathing in Gabon. It’s probably wise that Fackler’s artistic doppelganger avoided choosing Wahoo for the film’s location.
But, he’ll likely be back when his mood and the mood of his subject mellows.
"In Lovely, Still, I tried to make Omaha quaint and colorful,” he said. “But being bleak and lonely is just Nebraska's wheelhouse” for many people.
There is another overused stereotype, he noted. But, we tend not to mind this one as much: Nebraska tends to be perceived as “simple,” he said. “It’s not glamorous. But that is its charm and I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing. To me, it’s just all about the poetry you put behind it.”