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Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne: Interviews

Edited by Julie Levinson
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Alexander Payne
    Book Description:

    Since 1996, Alexander Payne has made six feature films and a short segment of an omnibus movie. Although his body of work is quantitatively small, it is qualitatively impressive. His movies have garnered numerous accolades and awards, including two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay. As more than one interviewer in this volume points out, he maintains an impressive and unbroken winning streak. Payne's stories of human strivings and follies, alongside his mastery of the craft of filmmaking, mark him as a contemporary auteur of uncommon accomplishment.

    In this first compilation of his interviews, Payne reveals himself as a captivating conversationalist as well. The discussions collected here range from 1996, shortly after the release of his first film,Citizen Ruth, to the debut ofNebraskaat the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. Over his career, he muses on many subjects including his own creative processes, his commitment to telling character-centered stories, and his abiding admiration for movies and directors from across decades of film history.

    Critics describe Payne as one of the few contemporary filmmakers who consistently manages to buck the current trend toward bombastic blockbusters. Like the 1970s director-driven cinema that he cherishes, his films are small-scale character studies that manage to maintain a delicate balance between sharp satire and genuine poignancy.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-061-7
    Subjects: Performing Arts, History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    Some unlikely scenarios for film comedies:

    A young pregnant woman, whose favorite pastime is getting high on paint fumes, becomes an unwitting pawn in the abortion wars, as both pro-choice and anti-abortion forces compete for her sorry soul.

    Out of spite, a popular high-school civics teacher rigs the election for student council president, thereby ending his career and, along the way, his marriage.

    A middle-aged man whose wife is in a coma from which she will not emerge discovers that she has been cheating on him and sets off to find the man who cuckolded him.

    None of these plot...

  4. Chronology
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  5. Filmography
    (pp. xxiii-2)
  6. Writing and Directing Citizen Ruth: A Talk with Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
    (pp. 3-21)
    Tod Lippy, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

    Alexander Payne [director/co-screenwriter] was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. He studied history and Spanish literature at Stanford University, during which time he spent extended periods in Spain and Colombia, the latter with a grant to research and write a history of Medellin. Payne later attended UCLA’s graduate program in film production, where he made several shorts, including his fifty-minute thesis film,The Passion of Martin, which played at over twenty film festivals, including Sundance, Montreal, and USA-Dallas, where it won a Special Jury prize. The film also had a theatrical run in Los Angeles and was broadcast on England’s...

  7. An Interview with Citizen Ruth Director Alexander Payne
    (pp. 22-24)
    Angie Drobnic and Alexander Payne

    Of all the holy cows in American culture, one of the biggest is undeniably abortion. People ponder it, fight about it and have even killed over it—which makes it the perfect topic for a sly satirist.

    Enter Alexander Payne, the director and co-writer of Miramax’s new film,Citizen Ruth. His film stars Laura Dern as the unforgettable title character Ruth Stoops, a paint huffing homeless dimwit who ends up in jail and pregnant—and not for the first time. By sheer synchronicity, Ruth shares a cell with a passel of pro-life protesters just after a judge offers her a...

  8. Adapting and Directing Election: A Talk with Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
    (pp. 25-40)
    Annie Nocenti, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

    Annie Nocenti: Not many filmmakers are working in satire these days. One reviewer wrote that you two were the best of them.

    Alexander Payne: David Denby said we are the “only” true social satirists working in American film today.

    Jim Taylor: If we go down in a plane the nation will mourn. We always fly separately. One review said it was the first real political satire sinceShampoo.

    Payne:Manohla Dargis. Not that I read reviews or anything.

    Taylor:The reviews have been embarrassingly positive. It’s gratifying. And very smart reviews. Margo Jefferson opened her discussion ofElectionin the New York...

  9. Bringing on the Payne
    (pp. 41-46)
    Jeffrey M. Anderson and Rob Blackwelder

    “So what up? How may I help you today?” gibes thirtyish writer-director Alexander Payne as he straddles into a chair at the glass dining table in his San Francisco hotel room. “Have you seen my film?”

    He’s asking aboutElection,his deliriously sardonic and underhanded satire of politics and high school culture that follows trepidatious government teacher (Matthew Broderick) through increasingly bizarre attempts to sideline a senior’s fanatical student body presidential campaign. The film, which opened locally last Friday, had just played the night before at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

    “Oh, yes. I liked it,” I reply.


  10. Fresh Air Interview with Alexander Payne
    (pp. 47-54)
    Terry Gross and Alexander Payne

    Terry Gross: This isFresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates are nominated for Academy Awards for their performances inAbout Schmidt.My guest is the director of the film, Alexander Payne. He also directedElectionandCitizen Ruth. About Schmidtis set in Omaha, where Payne grew up. Nicholson plays an insurance actuary who is forced out of the life he knows when he retires and his wife dies suddenly. The movie is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Louis Begley. The movie also draws on the screenplay that Payne and his...

  11. About Schmidt Director Alexander Payne Does Have Something Interesting to Say
    (pp. 55-59)
    Walter Chaw and Alexander Payne

    Eyes glowering under a shock of black hair, Alexander Payne, tall and angular, strikes a sort of middle-American Neil Gaiman figure, cutting through the crowds gathered for the twelfth Aspen Shortsfest with authority and something like diffidence. Meeting in the lobby of the Wheeler Opera House, we go off in search of a shot of espresso;along the way, he corrects that he didn’t study Spanish philosophy in college, but Spanish philology; makes it a point to punctuate some statements with a companionable squeeze of my arm; and then says something sort of curious: “I don’t know why you’d want to...

  12. Interview: Alexander Payne
    (pp. 60-63)
    Jeff Otto

    With his first three films,Citizen Ruth, Election,andAbout Schmidt, Alexander Payne has achieved the rare feat of not only avoiding the sophomore slump, but also of avoiding the trappings of success in Hollywood. Even with his largest-scale film to date,About Schmidt, Payne kept his very original voice and unique perspective. Payne’s latest film is entitledSideways,adapted from the 1999 novel by Rex Pickett. For the first time, Payne has decided to venture out of his home state of Nebraska and move to the beautiful vineyard territory of Santa Barbara County. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church...

  13. Interview: Alexander Payne
    (pp. 64-70)
    Scott Tobias and Alexander Payne

    With only four features to his credit, writer-director Alexander Payne has established himself as one of the most reliable auteurs in American comedy, drawing comparisons to Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder for his crackling dialogue and acerbic social commentary. Originally from Nebraska, Payne returned to his hometown of Omaha for his first three comedies, which depict the Midwest without the golden gloss that plagues Hollywood films about life between the coasts. In different ways, 1996’sCitizen Ruthand 1999’sElectionsatirized the political process—the former in the tug-of-war that pro-life and pro-choice activists wage over a pregnant junkie (Laura...

  14. Alexander Payne: Sideways
    (pp. 71-74)
    Adrian Hennigan and Alexander Payne

    In the space of three movies, Alexander Payne has established himself as one of America’s most distinctive filmmakers. The Reese Witherspoon high school comedyElection(1999) was his calling card, but it was 2003’sAbout Schmidt—featuring an Oscar-nominated turn by Jack Nicholson—that really made audiences sit up and take notice. Now critics worldwide are having kittens over his buddy comedySideways,in which two loser forty-something men—Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church—go on a week-long wine-tasting tour of California.

    Adrian Hennigan: Why are you attracted to losers in your movies?

    Alexander Payne: I don’t know. . ....

  15. Alexander Payne
    (pp. 75-84)
    Kate Donnelly and Alexander Payne

    Alexander Payne makes films with an eye for incidental details. He circles his characters when they are at their most fragile and vulnerable. InCitizen Ruth, a pregnant Ruth Stoops plunges down a flight of stairs. InElection, Mr. McAllister washes his genitals in a hotel bathtub before an adulterous affair. InAbout Schmidt,Warren Schmidt loads up on Percodan and plunges into a hot tub with his future in-law. InSideways,Miles Raymond accidentally encounters a waitress and her flabby boyfriend having wild sex to a televised (and muted) Donald Rumsfeld. With a sense of ease, he shares with...

  16. Alexander Payne: Staying Straight While Making Sideways
    (pp. 85-89)
    Brad Balfour and Alexander Payne

    WithSideways, Alexander Payne really proves he’s a true contender, not just the creator of smart, snarky idiosyncratic comedies but solid filmmaker who tackled humanity with aplomb. In this humorous on-theroad buddy flick, leads Paul Giamatti (failed writer Miles Raymond) and Thomas Haden Church (former hot actor Jack) grapple with Jack’s final week of freedom before marriage. In doing so, they review their lives through their bumpy ride throughout the California’s wine country. Though Payne’s previous filmsCitizen Ruth, Election, andAbout Schmidtgarnered acclaim,Sidewaysgarnered him the Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Best Director because it displays...

  17. Alexander Payne: Sideways Glance at America
    (pp. 90-114)
    Kenneth Turan and Alexander Payne

    Kenneth Turan: We’re at the Walker Art Center for a Regis Dialogue with filmmaker Alexander Payne. We’re going to be discussing his artistic vision, his sense of humor, and his love of film. Alexander Payne’s films, characterized by his ability to bring emotional reality to drop-dead funny comedies, manage to be achingly true to life while dealing with seriously out-of-control situations. Even the setting of most of them, Payne’s quintessentially all-American home town of Omaha, Nebraska, emphasizes the notion that these people could well be anyone’s friends and neighbors, maybe even yours.

    Well, I wanted to start at the beginning;...

  18. Alexander Payne Talks The Descendants, Clooney, Next Black and White Film, New Trailer
    (pp. 115-122)
    Anne Thompson and Alexander Payne

    Of all the fall movies, the one that hit me in the solar plexus, made me laugh and cry, and struck me as a likely Oscar contender in multiple categories, was heartfelt low-budget comedyThe Descendants,Alexander Payne’s return to the screen, after winning best original screenplay (with Jim Taylor) for 2004’sSideways.“Alexander should make more movies,” George Clooney told me at Telluride. Of course he should, but this is the one Payne was able to get made. And it was worth the wait.

    In Telluride, I interviewed the laconic writer-director as we walked from one theater to another....

  19. Alexander Payne on The Descendants and Why It’s a Minor Work
    (pp. 123-128)
    Eric Kohn and Alexander Payne

    Alexander Payne is in a good mood, or at least a little more chipper than usual. If the consensus means anything, the man behind such noted black comedies asElectionandAbout Schmidthas yet to break his winning streak. Seven years have passed since his last feature, Sideways, and now he’s back with another acclaimed work:The Descendants,an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel. Star George Clooney joins a roster of A-listers, including Reese Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson, who have been attracted to Payne’s caustic and emotionally complex style. No one has been let down yet.

    The new...

  20. Director’s Chair: Alexander Payne’s The Descendants
    (pp. 129-133)
    Iain Blair and Alexander Payne

    Post: Your last film was seven years ago. What took so long?

    Alexander Payne: I was pretty busy writing three scripts, one of which I’ll make in the future, doing a pilot, I did a short in Paris, I got divorced, had surgery. Those seven years went very quickly.

    Post: What sort of film did you set out to make?

    Payne: I never have a vision for my films. I just felt this was a good story that hooked me, and I never question it. I never say, I’m making a drama or whatever, until afterwards, and then it turns...

  21. Filmmaker Alexander Payne on The Descendants
    (pp. 134-141)
    Edward Douglas and Alexander Payne

    Filmmaker Alexander Payne has been out of the limelight for over six years, when his previous movieSidewayswas nominated for numerous Oscars, winning for Payne’s screenplay with regular collaborator Jim Taylor.

    Now, Payne has teamed with George Clooney forThe Descendants, an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel about Hawaii-based real estate lawyer Matt King, whose wife ends up in a coma after a boating accident, which leads to him discovering she had been having an affair behind his back. With only days for his wife to live, Matt decides to find the man she was sleeping with to...

  22. Interview: Alexander Payne
    (pp. 142-149)
    Scott Tobias and Alexander Payne

    Born in Omaha, Nebraska, director Alexander Payne established himself early as a comic voice for middle America, staying close to home for his first three features: 1996’sCitizen Ruth,a scathing satire about the unseemliness of abortion politics; 1999’sElection,another political satire, this time in the cutthroat world of high-school student council elections; and 2002’sAbout Schmidt, about the seriocomic adventures of a newly retired Omaha insurance salesman. But for his last two films, Payne left his Midwest comfort zone without losing his keen sense of locale or his talent for observational humor. An Oscar winner for Best Adapted...

  23. Payne Find His Way to The Descendants
    (pp. 150-152)
    Marshall Fine

    The last time out as a writer-director, Alexander Payne received an Oscar nomination as best director and shared the Oscar itself with partner Jim Taylor for best adapted screenplay.

    Of course, that was seven years ago, with 2004’sSideways.You’d think that, with encouragement like that, the next one would be easy. Not so, says Payne, who returns to theaters this week with his new film,The Descendants.

    “I don’t want to take so long between films,” Payne, fifty, says with a shrug, sitting in a hotel suite during a recent press day. “It just happened.” So what took so...

  24. An Interview with Alexander Payne
    (pp. 153-158)
    Glenn Kenny and Alexander Payne

    The writer and director Alexander Payne has a quietly elegant presence that’s a comfortable match for his penetrating intelligence, an intelligence that’s a sparkling feature of his conversation and, of course, a crucial component of his films. With producer and frequent co-writer Jim Taylor, Payne has made five feature films (and one notable short, in the omnibus pictureParis, je t’aime)that are searching and sometimes sardonic studies of unique but nevertheless representative American characters in unique American settings. The social-activism satireCitizen Ruth, the high-school-as-metaphor-for-cursed-life comedyElection,the dying-of-the-light road picture About Schmidt, and the wine-dark story of love for...

  25. Interview: Alexander Payne
    (pp. 159-169)
    Dave Davies, Terry Gross and Alexander Payne

    Terry Gross: This isFresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. Though he’s directed only five feature films, our guest Alexander Payne has managed to build a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers. His movies find comedy in the crises of his flawed protagonists, among them Matthew Broderick as a high school teacher in the 1999 filmElection,Jack Nicholson as a widower in About Schmidt, and Paul Giamatti as a struggling author and wine snob in the 2004 filmSideways, for which Payne shared an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Payne’s latest film isThe Descendants,which is set...

  26. Alexander Payne Talks The Descendants and His Next Two Projects, Nebraska and Wilson
    (pp. 170-174)
    Christina Radish and Alexander Payne

    InThe Descendants, director Alexander Payne (creator of the Oscar-winning Sideways) follows the unpredictable journey of an American family at a crossroads. Set in picturesque Hawaii, Matt King (George Clooney), husband and father of two girls, is forced to re-examine his life when his wife is incapacitated in a boating accident. While attempting to repair his relationship with his seventeen-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), he learns things about his wife and his family that he was never even aware of, but that send him down the path toward rebuilding his life.

    At the film’s press...

  27. Interview with Alexander Payne
    (pp. 175-183)
    Charlie Rose and Alexander Payne

    Charlie Rose: Alexander Payne is here. He is a director and screenwriter. His movies have been praised for their humor and their pathos.Film Commentmagazine calls Payne, “One of an endangered species.” His new movie,The Descendants,it is his first feature film in seven years. Welcome. It’s good to have you here.

    Alexander Payne:Thanks, thanks for having me.

    Rose: So tell me how this got started because you were going to make another movie and then you didn’t make that movie. And then all of a sudden somebody comes up with the idea ofThe Descendantsand you and...

  28. Alexander Payne Prefers Actors Who Can Communicate
    (pp. 184-189)
    Jennelle Riley and Alexander Payne

    Alexander Payne is the kind of filmmaker his peers can’t help envying. All five of his feature films have been successful, commercially and critically. More important, they were made on his terms, products of an offbeat and uncompromising vision. He can find the heart in any situation, be it controversial (think of the glue-sniffing pregnant woman unwittingly caught in an abortion debate inCitizen Ruth) or ordinary (the meandering road trip ofAbout Schmidt). And he has a way of making audiences invest in the average, such as the life of the failed author– wine connoisseur of his Oscar-winningSideways....

  29. The Lei of the Land: A Few Moments with Alexander Payne
    (pp. 190-193)
    Christy Grosz and Alexander Payne

    Alexander Payne recently spoke with Variety’s Christy Grosz aboutThe Descendants,the difficulties in finding naturalistic child actors, star power, and why he abhors shooting scenes that take place inside a car:

    Christy Grosz: Do you spend time rehearsing before shooting?

    Alexander Payne: Not too much. I like to accompany the actors to the locations. It’s not fair to begin shooting a man in his house [when] he only went to that house the day of shooting. The actor should ideally visit the locations well in advance, even rehearse on site. Rehearsing is sort of casual. You read through lines,...

  30. Director of The Descendants, Alexander Payne, Talks Bristling Egos and Putting Life on Film
    (pp. 194-197)
    Alanna J. Lawson and Alexander Payne

    Q: What did you like most about the story of The Descendants?

    A: What I liked most about the story were two acts of love—or what I thought were two acts of love—in the book and then I’d have them in the movie. One is when [Matt King’s character] decides to tell the lover that the woman is dying, and that if he wants to he can have a chance to say goodbye to her at the hospital. I liked that. And I liked that not he—because he’s too cowardly—but his wife shows up at the...

  31. Omaha and the Perfect Ending: The Alexander Payne Interview
    (pp. 198-201)
    Erich van Dussen and Alexander Payne

    Erich van Dussen: I’ll start off easy: Where are you today?

    What are you up to? Alexander Payne: I’m in an editing suite, supervising the editing on my latest motion-picture extravaganza.

    EVD:That’sNebraska,right? I heard you were making another film in Omaha. How did that come about?

    AP: Well, I have to correct you— I did not shoot a frame of film in Omaha. I was in rural Nebraska. I spent a couple of days shooting in Lincoln, a city I knew, but I also shot in a bunch of towns that I’d never even heard of before. I...

  32. Film Director Alexander Payne: Greece “Energizes My DNA!”
    (pp. 202-205)
    Demetrios Rhompotis and Alexander Payne

    Demetrios Rhompotis: Your project in the making is calledNebraska.

    What is it about? How was it shooting in your hometown?

    Alexander Payne:This film will be my first in black and white and I’m a big film buff. I would say 95 percent of the movies I watch are black and white and I always wanted to make one. It’s a very simple story, a father and son road trip from Montana to Nebraska. It’s a very modest little comedy, but I didn’t actually shoot it in my hometown of Omaha, rather in the rural areas of my state of...

  33. Whittling Birch Bark: A Conversation with Alexander Payne
    (pp. 206-215)
    Julie Levinson and Alexander Payne

    This interview was conducted the week afterNebraskadebuted at the 66th Cannes Film Festival, where it was one of twenty films selected for the main competition. Payne was continuing to edit the film in preparation for its theatrical release later in the year.

    Julie Levinson: I want to have a sort of meta-conversation by asking about some of the things you’ve said in past interviews and by taking an overview of your films. There’s a great line from Jean Renoir: “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it apart and makes it again.” As...

  34. Director Alexander Payne on Nebraska
    (pp. 216-220)
    Damian Houx and Alexander Payne

    Damian Houx: Your cast has a lovely, sometimes dysfunctional rapport. How do you go about creating that? Do you have lots of rehearsals or is it spontaneous?

    Alexander Payne: It’s somewhere in between. I don’t have the tradition of rehearsing very much and most movies don’t. Some directors really rehearse the hell out of things but I don’t come from that background necessarily. Also I’ve never had the budgets to bring actors to location for their hotel and per diem much in advance of shooting. But the good thing in movies is you only have about two pages a day...

  35. Additional Resources
    (pp. 221-222)
  36. Index
    (pp. 223-231)