Billings Landscaper Andrew Marble’s Brush with Oscar-Nominated “Nebraska”

By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO

Serendipity always compensates the prepared.

And in the case of Andrew “AJ” Marble, landscape designer and manager of Billings Nursery & Landscaping, serendipity rewarded his quick-thinking preparedness with a small part assisting in the production of the Oscar-nominated “Nebraska.”

Directed by Alexander Payne, “Nebraska” is about a crotchety alcoholic (Bruce Dern) who travels from Billings, Montana to the titular state with his disagreeing son (Will Forte) to claim a sweepstakes prize he thinks he’s won.

The film’s opening scenes were filmed in and around Billings, and one morning around Thanksgiving, in 2012, crew members sauntered into his Billings Nursery & Landscaping, at 2147 Poly Drive.

They were rummaging around for plants and accessories, and Marble treated their inquiry as if it were any other.

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“There were a couple of guys who came into the store looking for plants and pictures, and looking for oddities,” says Marble, who at the time had been prepping his inventory of Christmas trees. “I believe they bought the work of some local artists we had here at the time, to use for the movie or as a prop of some kind. And they bought a few house plants, too.”

Soon, the conversation turned to the unusually warm weather in Billings that day and how the absence of real snow meant that mounds of white would have to be trucked in from elsewhere.

“The guys were saying, ‘hey, this is Montana, there should always be snow here,’ and saying ‘well, we didn’t think that we needed to worry about snow in Montana.’ But they didn’t have the snow they needed, all because it was 50 degrees and it had warmed up, and all the snow had melted.”

One of the men figured that the easiest and most abundant place to locate snow to haul from would be in Red Lodge. The others agreed. And then Marble spoke up.

“I told them that I thought Red Lodge would be a little more of a challenge,” says Marble. “I also mentioned that my friend at the airport had at least six big piles of it. I knew that there were piles of snow on the runways. So they asked us if we had trucks, and asked us if we would be willing to haul it down to the set.”

Not before long, Marble was using a two-ton truck to deliver stockpiled snow to downtown Billings – for one of the opening scenes outside of the Billings Bus Depot.

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“We then got another load and went out to Laurel to use it,” says Marble. “But I guess it was creating too many puddles, and they didn’t use that snow. I got to help with the artificial snow on the Laurel set. Obviously, they paid me, and it was a cool deal to help them out. It was fun and interesting.”

Hired under the general job description of “greensman,” Marble was allowed to access the set between duties, where he observed the focus and poise and complicated convergence of filmmaking.

“I was on the set for a few days, and I had the snow ready for two days. And I got to hang around in case they needed it. I got to see the creative process and the interaction. It was a well run ship, everybody knew there place. There’s obviously a creative process of movie filming.”

Indeed, the creative processes of Alexander Payne and company have yielded some superior accolades.

In addition to Payne’s Oscar nomination for directing, the film also was up for Best Picture, Best Actor (Dern), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay for writer Bob Nelson.

The American Film Institute named “Nebraska” its 2013 Movie of the Year, saying Payne evokes “empathy, if not sympathy, for an embittered family on an unlikely pilgrimage” that includes “a quietly stirring and darkly comic study on aging.”

Although it was shot in black-and-white, Payne captured the spot in colors of the community’s in the film by inserting many of the local residents as extras. He used non-actors, such as former Yellowstone Sheriff’s Department Captain Dennis McCave, in minor roles such as police officers (McCave is in the opening scene), teachers, or waitresses, creating an everyday reassurance.

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“It was very cool to learn about movie-making,” says Marble. “I was naïve on just how movies are made, and naïve about the process and how much is involved. I didn’t quite understand how much time and energy went in and just how many people collaborate on a film. You never think about a local guy who hauled snow – and there is a ton of those kinds of things. There are a lot of people involved.”

Marble, 29, was born and raised in Billings, a third-generation Montanan. Billings Nursery & Landscaping has been operated by the Marble family since 1952. “My father actually worked on the Tom Cruise film “Far and Away” supplying plants,” says Marble.

He says that Billings’ uncommon connection to such a powerhouse film and the life experience he gained thanks to a serendipitous stint of sunshine are unforgettable.

“It was great to be a small, small part of “Nebraska,’” says Marble. “I like the Billings scenery in the movie, and it’s not a common thing around here to have a movie. It’s not something that happens every day.”

The selectively convincing depictions made the terrains of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska look especially frosty, remote, and hardscrabbled.

“It’s funny that Billings looks that way because it is actually booming,” says Marble. “Personally, we had a phenomenal year last year at the nursery, and things are growing everywhere in Billings. Last year, it was a great year for us, and our projections for this year look to be very good, too.”

That’s not to say that a protracted dose of winter doesn’t make your average Montanan anxious for the spring blooms. Indeed, on this particularly harsh morning, Marble finds himself in the prolific midst of the third-snowiest year on record in Billings – 36.8 inches of snow during the 28 days of February alone.

“I just got done removing snow from around the store,” says Marble. “We got another seven inches last night. There is plenty on the ground to shoot a movie today, isn’t there?”

Brian D’Ambrosio is a freelance writer who works with the Montana Film Office.

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