Cannes Roundtable: Bruce Dern on Nebraska and “Dernsies”

Nebraska Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern kept a Cannes roundtable going pretty much on his own, and I didn’t want to interrupt too much as he was giving us gold about his long, storied career with specific examples from his classic films. Dern would win Best Actor in the Cannes Film Festival competition for his role in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, as an aging alcoholic who thinks he’s won a million dollars from a magazine sweepstakes. Dern remained as sharp and colorful as ever as he regaled us with his stories.

Bruce Dern on his “Dernsies.”

Bruce Dern: I guess Mr. Nicholson and I probably do it better than most but they are little things that you do, either character things or interjections of dialogue that is not on the page, or behavior that is not on the page. Mr. Hitchcock said to me the first day of Family Plot, I said, “Why me? Why’d you pick me?” He said, “Well, first of all, Bruce, Mr. Packinow wanted a million dollars.” I said, “Packinow?” He said, “You spell his name phonetically. Pacino is Packinow.” Once we got that straight I understood that and then I said, “But why?” He said, “In my office, Bruce, I have 1268 perfect frames on a billboard. None of them are entertaining. I picked you because you’re entertaining. John Forsythe is not entertaining. And you’re unpredictable. The frame is perfect but it’s not entertaining or unpredictable. That’s who you are and that’s why you’re here.”

Dernsies are unpredictable behavior that are part of the character that we feel might work just as good as what’s on the page already, but familiarize an audience more with a character and depth. Especially they’re used in movies where you don’t have it on the page or you don’t have a director who’s going to take the time to study the behavior. This man is a god in that area. You don’t have to speak. He’ll leave the camera on you.

I walk in the kitchen, I take some water, I keep talking, I walk out. They play an entire scene. He plays it on me sitting on the couch in the other room. He takes the time, he’s not worried about pace and pick it up and sh*t like that. I can’t stand it. I don’t mind doing it but let’s do it for a reason, not to make the movie shorter. That’s the biggest thing. I use Dernsies to enhance what I think will be the character I play.

Nebraska is pretty much Dernsie-free.

It depends on the film. I didn’t use one Dernsie in this movie. I didn’t put one word or sentence in. Oh yes, I did one time. In the car at the end of the movie, there’s no Dernsie but he comes out and I have a cap over my head, and he says, “Dad. Dad.” And then he says it a third time and then he starts talking to me. He said, “Dad. Dad.” And I just said, “I’m here.” And that’s the only time, and he let me do it. I wouldn’t dare risk it on him. He’s too good to pull little stuff like that.

Dernsies in The Driver.

Other Dernsies I’ve done are like, I don’t know if you saw it, but it’s a good movie, no one ever sees it, called The Driver. Walter Hill wrote and directed it. Isabelle Adjani was in it with Ryan O’Neal. At the very end of the movie, we get stung, he goes to the locker, takes a bag of money out that has $250,000 in it that he’s won and I won. He comes up to me and then we play out what the end of the movie is but I arrest him. Walter Hill hadn’t written a line, so I said, “Can I say something?” He said, “I don’t need added words to the scripts. They’re pretty good.” He hadn’t done Alien yet but he wrote Alien and 48 Hours. Walter Hill’s done a lot of interesting things people really don’t give him credit for.

He said, “You’ve got one take to do it, and you’ll do it in that take or you’re out.” So Ryan O’Neal walks up to me and if you remember the shot, he’s alone in the train station, I’m alone in the train station at three in the morning. He sees nothing behind him. He opens the locker, nothing behind him. Closes it, opens the bag, looks in it, turns around, nothing behind him. Closes the bag, turns around, I’m standing there with 250 uniformed policemen. He walks all across the station to me and what I did was he walks to me and I just go, “Gotcha.” Walter said, “That was good. That was good, I’ll keep it, I’ll print it and I’ll see if it’s in the movie.” Some versions it’s in, some versions didn’t, depends who got hold of it but that’s a Dernsie.

CraveOnline: Did your daughter, Laura, inherit any Dernies?

Oh yeah. I mean, you work for David Lynch, he’s a Dernie. He’s a born Dernsie. She’s had a few, but the first time I ever did it was with John Wayne in The Cowboys and I was silent. While they were putting bullet hits on him, he’d never had a bullet hit on him in all his years. He’d never been shot really except by a sniper by Japan and everything, Iwo Jima or whatever the movies were. So they put two bullet hits here [on the chest]. Unbeknownst to him, they took his jacket off to put the bullet hits on. He knew they were going to do that but what Mark Rydell and I had decided to do was put a bullet hit in the middle of his jacket in the back, because no one would ever think that anyone would shoot John Wayne number one, number two in the back, and he didn’t know.

So as he walks away from me I say, “Turn around, you son of a bitch, I want you to see this coming.” He doesn’t turn around. Pow, and he was shocked but he went right with it. He dropped to his knees, fell down and I walk over and shoot him two more times. But that was the first Dernsie ever but I had to have an accreditation from Mark Rydell to be allowed to do that.

More on The Cowboys with John Wayne.

What was neat about that movie, I’d been in a movie called The War Wagon with him and Kirk Douglas. He had a tendency to take over movies as a director. in other words, if they weren’t moving at the pace he wanted or they weren’t as good as he thought they should be, he’d take them over. The first day of The Cowboys, he was doing a lockoff John Wayne shot my first day. I did a scene with him, I finished my dialogue, now we have to turn around and shoot him across the river on a horse in a Marlboro Man shot, and he’s the original Marlboro Man and smoked enough to be one. Sitting on his horse he sat 25 minutes and Mark Rydell and Robert Surtees who won three Oscars as a cinematographer are running around trying to find the right angle for the camera.

All of a sudden from across the river, we hear, “Misterrr Ryyydell?” “Yes, Duke. Yes, Duke. What’s the matter?” He said, “Wheeere did ya’ growww up?” He said, “New York.” “Where?” “164th and Grand Concourse.” “How farrr did you have to walk to see a real cowboy?” He said, “Well, down to the Stratton Theater on Saturday afternoons is about as close as we got.” “Quit f***in’ around. It’s a John Wayne lockoff. Any punk in the world can shoot this shot. You oughta’ be ashamed of yourself, run around trying to find the right angle. You created the shot and looks about an 11 shot so what are you guys doing?” Mark said, “Oh, absolutely right, Duke.” He said, “Mr. Rydell, I will never make another comment to you on this entire movie” and he never did.

What he was basically saying to Mark is, “I accept you as a director. You understand it. You get it. Let’s make the movie. You’ve cast it right, you’ve done everything right but don’t f*** with me on a shot this simple, an all time easy shot.” So that was the first time I ever used a Dernsie.

Jack Nicholson invented Dernsies.

Jack’s the one that gave me the nickname. That’s what he calls me to this day, Dernsie. Both Jack and I used a few Nicholsons and Dernsies in Marvin Gardens, but the first time I used on vocally was a year before that. Jack directed a movie called Drive, He Said which I was in as a basketball coach. That’s where the term was invented. I had to walk around the corner going down the hallway and he said, “Anything you wanted to come up with to embellish who the character might be other than what I’m going to put in the script or what’s on there, do it.” I said, really? Because we’d done nothing but Dernsies in the Roger Corman movies. I mean, you couldn’t stay alive if you didn’t invent sh*t on those movies because there was nothing on the page and you had to do it in nine days for 180 grand. I mean 180 grand to make the movie, not for us.

So I walked around the corner and two girls come by in cheerleader outfits. I just went [snaps fingers] and kept up walking. He cut, came up and said, “From now on, when I say Dernsie, give me a Dernsie. Okay, because that was fabulous. That tells me more about the character…”

CraveOnline: One of my favorites is The ‘Burbs. What are some Dernsies in that?

That’s written. They look like Dernsies. There is one Dernsie in there, when we go into the Klopek house at the beginning and the little strange kid that was in Children of the Corn, Courtney Gains is the actor. I just know him as the kid. I still call the guy who was pig’s dad Pig’s Dad in Babe. He’s a good actor. He became better. He always gets roles from me, James Cromwell, who incidentally had the most touching line I’ve ever seen in a movie in my life.

But anyway, I invented some stuff there. We go in the house and the little weird kid comes up and says, “Sardine?” He’s got Brother Theodore and Henry Gibson. He’s offering like that and then he leaves the room real quickly and I said, “Where you goin’, Pinocchio?” because he had a Pinocchio kind of nose. Dernies sometimes come out of picking or bullying on people in the scene about their actual appearance. In other words, I don’t write ‘em down in the script. I don’t know when they’re coming.

CraveOnline: What was the most touching line James Cromwell had in what movie?

Oh, the line they did in RKO 267 the HBO movie about Hearst. [Editor’s Note: RKO 281] He’s walking down the stairs and I’m always touched by people that have done grand things and don’t get a lot of credit. Melanie Griffith said, “You get this movie stopped, you don’t let him play this. You say you’re such a big man, you say you’re such a famous man. Well, you’re not famous at all and you’re not a big man and you’re not a great man. They all say you’re a great man.” He’s way down the staircase by then. He says, “Number one, I won’t have that language in my house and number two, I never said I was a great man. I just said I was a man who had a chance to be great and wasn’t.”

The Dernsie ahead of its time.

I did a western called Harry Tracy and in Harry Tracy I’m a bank robber, beginning of the 20th century western. We go into the bank and we rob, I said, “Fill it up” and I look down on her with a mask. She fills it up and I say, “Could I have a little more?” He said, “You’re asking for more in a robbery?” I said, “Does Pinocchio have a wooden dick?” Fox got three or four letters that said, “First of all, Pinocchio wasn’t written yet.” How the hell does anybody know when they wrote Pinocchio? The head of Fox then was Dick Zanuck and he had bought the film. He says, “I love that but why the press?” I still don’t know when they wrote Pinocchio but I figured it was before 1904.