Bob Nelson On Writing ‘The Confirmation,’ ‘Nebraska,’ And Creating Iconic Characters
[This Interview originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.]
In The Confirmation, Anthony is on the fence about spending time with his hapless, alcoholic father. Equally unsure of their upcoming time together, Walt, a freelance carpenter, picks up his son for what he assumes to be a calm weekend while his ex-wife and her new husband go off on a Catholic marriage-counseling retreat.
Starring Clive Owen and Jaeden Lieberher, the father-son story was written and directed by Bob Nelson, best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay, Nebraska. Much like the acclaimed 2013 film, The Confirmation also has an all-star cast of side characters including Maria Bello, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Tobolowsky, Tim Blake Nelson, and Robert Forster.
What lead you into screenwriting?
I started out wanting to get a job writing comedy. I happened to live in the Seattle area where this show came on called Almost Live back in ’84 and I watched it a couple of years. I had written some comedy back in college trying to emulate Monty Python and Woody Allen, and when I saw this local show doing comedy I wrote some stuff up and took it over there.
I got a job on the show as a cast member and writer in 1989. I was basically just trying to write humor. I wasn’t thinking in terms of screenplays at that time. It was mainly sketch comedy, monologue jokes and guest bits.
There’s a lot of deadpan humor in Nebraska and The Confirmation, along with a lot of small town characters. Are these personal stories or do they reveal themselves as you write the characters?
There’s a lot of personal history in both of the films. With Nebraska and Confirmation, the main character starts with my dad, even though they look quite different. I grew up with To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I just tried to follow her example of taking things from your personal life and transforming them.
So again in Nebraska, the uncles are like my uncles. Some of the incidents in Nebraska really happened, like my dad being shot down in the war. He had his air compressor stolen.
For The Confirmation I was thinking about my dad being a mechanic, where he also had his tools stolen all the time. There’s an Italian film, The Bicycle Thief, where the dad had his bicycle stolen. I was thinking of that film as well and how that tied into my own personal history. Maybe I could take the idea and run with it in a little different direction, but with a lot of the same thoughts in mind.
By the time I was done with both films, it had pretty much transformed into more fiction than fact, but I certainly relied on my own life for both of them.
Did you write these stories somewhat together or did The Confirmation come about after the success of Nebraska?
I wrote Nebraska a long time before, around 2002. When Nebraska was optioned I got studio work, doing assignments. I did that for a few years and nothing was getting made, so I decided to take a break and write some more originals. I’ve written about five scripts and The Confirmation was the first I’ve gone out with. I think I started working on this about five years ago.
At the time I was thinking if I really want to have a better chance at getting movies getting made, then I would have to also transform myself into a director. I did some directing in local television, but I had not done anything bigger than that. I kind of thought that I really needed to try and make that because if it were successful at all, then I’d really have a chance at getting the others made.
About that time, Winter’s Bone came out and while watching it, I was thinking I wanted to direct a simple story like that one to start. It had some similarities to The Confirmation, such as it’s this small community where our protagonist is on a search. There’s not a lot of characters and that delivers a real just appeal to the story. So, with my dad’s personal history, Bicycle Thief and Winter’s Bone all getting into my head, I just went to the well of my personal history again. I just decided The Confirmation would work.
I think the final thing that brought it together was that I was talking to a friend of mine and we both talked about how we spent time in trucks outside of taverns and that we probably even saw each other out there someday even though we didn’t know each other yet.
So, when I started to write this, I got a notebook out and I just started feeling it with ideas, but the first line I wrote down was, “Two boys sitting in trucks outside a tavern.” That’s how it started and I tried to think real life stories that I could add and when I ran out of those I started inventing things around that theme.
Did directing change your writing process?
When you’re just going to be the writer, I think you don’t think in terms of how difficult the shoot will be. It’s the director’s problem. But, since this was going to be low budget and I would be directing, I did keep that in mind. I don’t think it influenced the script a lot, but maybe a little bit around the edges.
For instance, we had twenty-two shooting days and there’s a part in The Confirmation where a lady sics a dog on the protagonists. Instead of having a real dog, I decided she had this device that made barking sounds like a dog. Part of that’s a joke, but part of it was because I didn’t want to lose half a day to dog wrangling.
Sometimes keeping the budget and shooting days in mind make you think of things like that. Like Monty Python with the coconuts in The Holy Grail: they were asked why and it was because they couldn’t afford the horses.
What kind of other cinematic influences come to mind when you’re either making or writing these types of films?
Well, I grew up on Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) and Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Being There). These days, Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) who I admired before he ever got a hold of Nebraska.
I guess the link to all of those people would be that a lot of their films are realistic and have a mixture of drama and humor. That “dramedy” word we all hate, but it is still the closest definition to what we have. I had always wanted to do it and had been writing pure comedy for ten years so the chance to do a little drama was really appealing to me.
Coming from a comedy background, I fell back on that as well. Horton Foote was an influence; he did the adaptation for To Kill A Mocking Bird for film and he also had a few of his own, like The Trip to Bountiful and Tender Mercies. If you look at Nebraska and The Confirmation you can see similarities to Horton Foote. I grew up on those guys.
These days Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine, Adaptation). I’ve been watching Tom McCarthy’s career where he started making a small budget movie, The Station Agent, and gradually working his way up to The Visitor and Win Win, and — all of a sudden — he’s doing Spotlight.
I always thought I should try to emulate. I like Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me. There’s a lot of fantasy out there right now and I do like some of that, but it does seem like the reality genre is lacking so I thought there might be an opening for me there.
You mentioned some drama — there is a pretty dark scene with Anthony is basically keeping his father from getting any alcohol for various reasons and then there’s that withdrawal moment. Is that based on truth or how did that scene come about?
It is based on a true story; it happened to me. I was a little older than Anthony, but still not old enough to know what was going on. I did witness that. That one comes straight out of life and I did try to hide the bottles as a kid. That one is pretty close to what I experienced.
At the end of The Confirmation, it seems like Walt’s not in the best situation, but the tone is still somewhat optimistic. Was that your intention? Do we have high hopes for the father and son?
My favorite endings are bitter sweet — just a slight uptick. The ones I’ve written so far have humor in them. I think once you introduce humor, ending on a down note is a little dangerous.
The Bicycle Thief has some humor in it, but not a lot. It’s basically a drama with a couple of light hearted scenes. So, he was able to have an ending that was almost tragic. If I’m trying to make people laugh at least a few times in the movie, then I can’t leave them hanging out there.
It is interesting, you write these things and then you’re sometimes surprised at how people respond. The response to this is the ending is fairly upbeat and it looks like Walter has pretty much beat this, but when the boy says the line at the end, “You’re going to come next week?” And the dad says, “Yeah, I’ll be there.” My thought was: we’re not really sure he’ll be there.
But, I want the audience to participate in a way in that scene, so I want the audience to be saying, “I hope he will,” instead of just saying, “Yeah he’s absolutely fine now and everything is going to be fine from here on.” My intention was that it’s still a little shaky as to what’s going to happen in the future, but we all hope it will work out.
As far as the mixture of human comedy and tragedy, Billy Wilder has a scene where there’s an attempted suicide scene in the apartment and when Jack Lemon comes in and finds this woman in his bedroom having taken pills he rushes to the doctor next door but he has this woman with him.
So this is a fairly tragic scene, but in the middle of all this, the woman that he’s with and doesn’t know what’s going on, says a couple of really funny things. I don’t know how he pulls it off, but it works and he doesn’t pull you out of the scene at all. It’s just this bizarre mixture.
What are some of your writing rituals? When you’re in the room alone, what do you do? How do you start your day?
A lot of writers seem to write in the morning. I write at night, usually from nine to three when things are quiet. I slide my way into in. At nine o’clock I don’t jump in and start writing. If I’ve already been writing things, I’ll take time to read what I wrote the night before and kind of work myself into it.
I procrastinate as much as anybody and I think one trick to overcome that is to gradually work your way into the work. Maybe the first half hour I’ll look over what I’ve written. I’ll go through my notebook again, look at my outline and maybe type a line or two. After a while I’ll really want to get going again. So, that’s my ritual. I don’t usually just jump into it, but at a certain point, you just go and put something down.
You said this script was shot over twenty-two days. How long did it take you to write a draft of this film?
The draft we sent out for financing was probably three months. Then I always keep rewriting, so as it was out there, I kept rewriting and I rewrote even through production right up to each day’s shooting. For the main body of work, that’s still pretty intact, three months is usually it. I usually have my first draft done in about thirty days, if I’ve outlined fairly well. I try to get about three pages a day and write for thirty straight days. Then I spend the next two months rewriting.
When you’re rewriting these personal stories, is it difficult to make cuts? Is it harder because it’s how certain things actually happened?
I’m probably more reluctant to take out things that actually happened. I trust the things that are personal a little more, I guess, than the ones that I make up because they’re grounded in reality.
When you start making up stuff, sometimes it can go a little broad or it might be something you haven’t experienced, which we all have to start writing about at some point. I kind of try to anchor it with the real stuff even if it’s been transformed a little bit in the writing. It just makes me feel like I’m somewhere in reality. It’s something I can relate to and, hopefully, other people can relate to as well. I do tend to cling to those nuggets a little longer than anything else.
Is there anything — back before you had written Nebraska in the early 2000s — that you wish you had known about screenwriting? Any advice you would like to pass along to upcoming writers?
I was helped out on this because I came from sketch comedy. From writing three-minute sketches, I learned how to create a world of characters and keep dialogue and story very tight so it would have it pay off in three minutes. From studying the people I liked, I already went into it knowing to keep things tight. Alexander Payne did a pass on Nebraska and he tightened it even more.
I thought when I wrote The Confirmation, that it was pretty tight, but as we were starting to get into preproduction, I realized that I should tighten it even more just to make my days.
Just deciding what’s really necessary, I kept in a few things in The Confirmation that aren’t totally necessary for the story, but I liked. There’s some theories that there should be nothing in your script that doesn’t further the story whereas I also like things that enhance the character or enhance the story even though they technically could be cut.
The screenplays people have sent me to look at, the biggest mistake by far is not cutting and keeping it very tight. Dialogue often rambles on for pages; the descriptions are much more than you need.
I do think that unless it’s very important, you shouldn’t be describing anything you can’t see on the screen. I often see screenplays where people are telling what the characters are thinking and other descriptions you wouldn’t know by just watching the film.
The other big reason for all of this is when you finally get someone to read the screenplay, you only get that first time that these producers or financers read it and you want to make sure you have your story exactly how you want it so the descriptions or dialogue doesn’t just ramble. It’s a big deal for your script to stand out. Once you get it in their hands you want it to be tight and ready to go.
In your opinion, what makes a good story?
To me, it always comes down to the characters — to the people involved and what they’re going through. For instance, with The Confirmation I have a McGuffin in there with the toolbox, but its not a total McGuffin because the toolbox is very important to this guy’s life. So, I think its important to start with what are the character’s needs and wants, and what’s happening with them.
To take things a little further, I think sometimes in movies you’ll see its one layer. I like to start with that, but I also like to put other beams and layers below that. In The Confirmation, it’s the father/son relationship, and, to me, the stories all come down to relationships.
I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, but I do like sci-fi or fantasy when it’s grounded in these characters. Like the first Alien had such good characters. I was immediately taken by that. But, a lot of sci-fi is so fascinated with the CGI aspect that they lose characters. No matter what genre, most horror movies have these characters you like. They’re not just card board cutouts. But, I also like when you take it a step further and develop other themes.
Both The Confirmation and Nebraska have a comment on the working class having lost so much ground in the last thirty or forty years. In Nebraska, it seems the only way to get ahead is to win the lottery or the sweepstake.
In The Confirmation, the working class people are just feeding off of themselves because their wages are just not keeping up. The economy and the jobs are coming and going more and are not as steady. That’s not the main theme of either of the movies, but I like to develop other themes below it so even if people aren’t thinking about it as they watch the movie, they may think of it afterwards.
I think whatever character you introduce, no matter how small the role is, think of them as a human being and not just a prop for your main characters. I try to give everyone their own little story if I can.
In The Confirmation, you have Patton Oswald’s character, Drake, even Tim Blake Nelson’s who is mainly pretty bad guy, but there’s some hints he’s not all bad. There is something there. I think it’s important to give as much dimension as you can to all of the peripheral characters as well. Even if I had a hotel maid walk by for five or ten seconds, I would try to add something in there of a personality so that while you’re watching the movie you’re seeing this real person involved in their own world and they have a story, you’re just not seeing it right now. I think it’s really important to give every person that’s in your story some respect and substance.
I love your side characters — you don’t see that as much in movies today. They remind me of the Coen Brothers and recently Jeff Nichols, where every character has their own thing.
I don’t think people pick up on it immediately. Those types of films will resonate longer in people’s consciousness or subconscious if there’s a little bit in there that’s almost hidden, but somehow you pick up on it. Hopefully, it stays with the viewer longer because of that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about the film?
To me, it was just fun to write because I was getting back to my roots and family history. It’s not a ton of family history in there, but just by parting with that, it really spurred me on and kept me writing and I wanted to pay respect to my dad again and what he went through. Sometimes when we’re trying to come up with writing these things, little exercises can help.
With The Confirmation, I thought it would be funny if you took a boy who was really good and doesn’t really sin and have him break pretty much every commandment in a day. That kind of gave me a basis to start, too, when I was filling out the notebook.
So, I went through the 10 Commandments and I realized that the boy could break at least six commandments, but there were about four more that he couldn’t. So, for those, I just came up with things that were more of a symbol of him breaking that commandment. By having the writing exercise it actually helped me in the plot and deepening the characters.
In one of them, “Thou shall not kill,” that’s why he kills the insect. “Thou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” that’s why he’s looking at the other kid’s girlfriend. “Bear false witness,” that probably the best one for me. That’s why when they come back in and his dad has Vaughn on the ground and he tells him, “Tell him what Roger said.”
That actually helped me get to that Vaughn didn’t steal the tools, but that Roger did. I was trying to think of how would Anthony bear false witness to somebody? It gave me the idea that Roger would steal the tools and he would lie about it to get Vaughn to admit that Roger stole them.
But instead of Vaughn just stealing the tools — like you’d expect — it gave it another dimension. These things can help you if you come up with a tool like that. And the false idols is when he’s praying for his dad, you have Bill Nye the Science Guy and Albert Einstein looking over him.
It did seem like Anthony was 100 percent good in the first scene with the Priest. It was almost like the boy didn’t even know about these bad things until the Priest said, “Well, all boys do this…”
I just thought it would be a funny device to have and the other thing was I was trying to make sure that when he was breaking these commandments that it was actually for a good cause: still an innocent breaking of the commandments.
Can you give us any details on upcoming projects?
This year I’m tied up with an Amazon TV project. There’s a pilot up called Highston and we’ve got the go ahead to shoot five more later this year so I’ll be writing those soon. But its kind of a take on the Jimmy Stewart movie, Harvey.
In Highston, he’s a twenty-year-old boy who is confused by the world. So, to help him through it, he imagines celebrities are his friends. In the pilot episode, we have Shaquille O’Neal and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s on Amazon Prime.
So, I’ll write a few more of those. I have a couple of film scripts ready to go, so I’ll probably do a couple of rewrites on those during the year and try to take them out before the year is over — see if I can get another film made.
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