BUFFALO – Sometime in October 2012, a man arrived unannounced at the Elbow Room Lounge and said he wanted to shoot a movie.
Owner Valerie Simondi listened, but didn’t take his pitch all that seriously. That changed when he returned about a month later and handed her a business card emblazoned with the name Paramount Pictures.
“Oh, my God,” she recalled thinking. “I blew this guy off the first time, not realizing, and then he gave me his card.”
That December, a film crew and a fleet of semis arrived at the bar, which sits on a hill overlooking Lake DeSmet about nine miles north of Buffalo. Oscar-winning director Alexander Payne, "Saturday Night Live" alum Will Forte and Bruce Dern, the only cowboy ever to kill John Wayne, spent a few hours filming inside the bar and beside an old gas pump out front. Several locals served as extras.
The resulting movie, “Nebraska,” follows the travels of an old man who’s convinced he’s won $1 million and the adult son who journeys with him from Montana to Lincoln, Neb., to claim the prize. It premiered in November to almost universal acclaim and has earned dozens of nominations and awards.
Simondi expects to be watching Sunday’s Academy Award ceremonies when the film with a Cowboy State cameo competes for six Oscars, including best picture.
“I thought it was neat, but I never realized it was going to be that big of a film,” she said.
The lounge is part of the Lake Stop Resort, a motel, campground and general store complex that sits along the south shore of Lake DeSmet. In the film, Dern’s character stops there for gas but sneaks off for a drink at the bar, much to his son’s chagrin.
Filmmakers liked the old gas pump and told Simondi her bar was a perfect representation of a Wyoming drinking hole. That didn’t stop them from installing wolf, bear and buffalo mounts before shooting began.
“It looked like a taxidermy studio in here,” she said.
Simondi helped Paramount recruit extras for the bar scene, sending photographs of friends and customers to the filmmakers. Robert “Trash” Dach, a retired biker from Story, was among those chosen for the bar scene.
Dach looks a like slightly heavier version of the title character in “The Big Lebowski,” complete with long beard, longer hair and a penchant for wearing sunglasses indoors. He was traveling home from Casper in the fall of 2012 when he stopped in the Elbow Room for a drink. The bartender asked whether he wanted to be in movie.
Hell yeah, he told her.
On filming day, Trash’s job was simple: Sit at the bar and visit with the locals. Like any good actor, he made sure to prepare.
“I’m a method actor, man. My method is: Drink heavy,” he said. “So I got up early and started drinking heavy so I could be informed.”
And how many drinks did it take to get in character?
“Oh hell, I think I’m in character after three, but I knew this was special, so I had to give it a six-pack,” he said.
Iced tea and fake beer
The drinking stopped when the cameras rolled. Crew members told the locals alcohol wasn’t allowed on a union set. A staffer poured out perfectly good beers and filled the bottles with a non-alcoholic substitute. Cocktails were filled with iced tea rather than alcohol.
“I just sat and drank nonalcoholic beer, and it kind of pissed me off,” said Bob Ferris, a 75-year-old rancher who lives outside of Kaycee. “I’m a hardworking rancher. We’ve got to have some play time.”
Ferris and the other extras were told to sit around and drink fake booze. They could speak, but in voices quiet enough that the microphones wouldn’t record the conversation.
During what she thought was a break in the filming, Ferris’ wife, Sherry, started visiting with Dern, who was sitting beside her. The bar looks out over the lake, and she remarked about the pretty view.
The cameras were still recording, and filmmakers liked what they saw. They asked the two to continue.
“So I got an immediate raise from $60 to $850 because we talked,” Sherry said. “True story. I had to fill out new paperwork.”
The film crew left the same day, but not before Dern, who’s perhaps best known for his roles in TV and movie westerns, autographed a picture for Simondi. It now hangs in the bar.
“Thanks for remembering,” the inscription reads.
“Nebraska” never played in Buffalo. Some locals traveled to Sheridan and Casper to see themselves on the big screen. Trash saw the film with his brothers. When it was over, they called him a movie star.
“But nobody asked me for my autograph when I got up to go to the bathroom when the movie was over,” he joked.
Others, like Scott Madsen, never made it to the movies. Madsen is a contractor who played the Cowardly Lion in the local theater’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” He served as Dern’s stand-in during filming at the Elbow Lounge and his ’67 Ford Bronco was used in one scene.
Madsen pre-ordered the DVD so it would be delivered on the first day it became available. And unlike most years, he’ll tune in Sunday for the Academy Awards.
“I don’t normally watch them unless there is a really big show that gets me interested,” he said. “This year, I’ll definitely be watching.”
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