Screenwriter used Hartington for inspiration

HARTINGTON — It’s easy, sometimes, to take the places you live, work and sleep for granted. It’s even easier to forget the beauty of a place when you’re too busy to look around.

As the whispers on the roads confirm, this fall Alexander Payne, director of such films as “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants,” and “Sideways,” will be shooting his upcoming film “Nebraska” here in Northeast Nebraska.

Many have seemed surprised, even shocked, by the news, but as Payne’s films seem to emphasize, extraordinary stories often come from ordinary people — real people.

Rural Nebraska and its multitude of small towns are certainly real. And sometimes those small towns can leave a big impact. A fact Bob Nelson, the movie’s writer knows better than most.

Nelson, 56, Whidbey Island, Wash., is the son of Hartington natives Jean (Walz) and George Nelson.

Though he grew up in a small suburb of Seattle, Wash., Nelson says his visits to Northeast Nebraska to see his family as a kid made lasting impressions.

“I had relatives in Hartington, Wausa, Norfolk and rural towns in Washington,” said Nelson, “some of them were still farming when I was a kid, and I loved visiting both the towns and the farms. I grew up in a suburb of Seattle, which was kind of semi-rural at the time, but nothing like the wide open landscape of Nebraska.”

It was those wide open landscapes that Nelson remembered when he first wrote “Nebraska,” as well as the fond memories of his childhood visits.

“So,” said Nelson, “when I started to write about a father and son on a road trip, it occurred to me there might be a lot of opportunity for relationship material if they detoured into the father’s hometown.” And, because his parents grew up there and because of his own experiences, Nelson says, “I originally thought of Hartington.”

Nelson has very fond feelings of this area.

He remembers his grandparents’ “big old house in Hartingon,” where his mother lived when she was in high school.

There are fond memories of his Aunt and Uncle Kate and Alva “Buck” Nelson’s farm outside of Wausa, as well.

“They were wonderful people,” recalls Nelson “and staying there was one of the great thrills of my childhood.”

Nelson said one of the scenes in the movie came from a visit to their farm, when he went with Uncle Buck and an insurance adjuster out to the fields to assess the damage from a hail storm.

This last week Nelson has thought about that farm more than usual.

“I [‘ve] thought of them with the death of Neil Armstrong … I watched the first moon landing in their living room,” says Nelson, “Kate passed just this year in Wausa at age 99.”

It’s easy to imagine a bright-eyed boy on his Aunt and Uncle’s farm outside of Wausa, dreaming merrily about walking among the stars. Oddly, that dream has come true. Though, no doubt that young boy didn’t think it would be movie stars rather than meteors and moons where he would find himself.

Of course, with story-telling comes fictionalization. Hawthorne, though inspired by Hartington, is not an exact replica of Cedar County’s county seat.

“As I wrote the screenplay I decided for dramatic purposes to make the town a little darker and added some nefarious characters,” says Nelson, “Now I’m sure Hartington has some characters of its own, but my memories are of a lovely town with mostly nice people, so I changed the name to Hawthorne.

Nelson said he was inspired by one of his favorite writers, Harper Lee, who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“She took her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., and invented the fictional town of Maycomb, which embodied the best and worst of human nature. So Hartington served as an inspiration for Hawthorne — its somewhat evil twin town.”

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of truth and reality in Nelson’s script,

“The father is based on my own father. It’s his voice I heard when I was writing,” he said. “Several scenes and characters were taken from my own life. It’s a fictionalized story with a sweepstakes element thrown in, but it still feels about as personal as any movie you could hope to make in Hollywood.”

And that truth makes the story very personal.

“‘Nebraska’ was my first screenplay so it had special meaning, but it goes beyond that … I feel very lucky to have such a personal script in the hands of a great director who makes movies about real people, celebrating their very human virtues and flaws,” Nelson said.


All his life Nelson has wanted to write movies.

It was a dream as big as walking on the moon — a dream that grew life in the earth-bound fields of Northeast Nebraska. It may not always seem like the most exciting place on the planet, but rural Nebraska surprises people sometimes. It’s a place easily taken forgranted unless you see it with fresh eyes. And, as Nelson muses, “The thrill of riding on a tractor is hard to beat for a kid.”