In honor of the release of “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne’s first film in seven years and one I quite enjoyed, I wanted to republish an interview with the writer/director that I conducted in college for his last film “Sideways.” Since then, the film has been remade in Japan and Payne directed arguably his finest work, "14e arrondissement" for the anthology film "Paris, Je T'Aime" in 2006 and became an executive producer on the HBO comedy "Hung," but as you’ll see, his next film, the black-and-white comedy “Nebraska,” was already in the works at the time, as was his general desire to change up the sharper, satirical style that was the signature of his early work. Still, his gift for filmmaker and for gab haven't changed.
For someone who likes to ask questions, Alexander Payne has never been interested in giving the full answer.
“I don’t know why I do half the things I do in real life,” said Payne, whose latest film “Sideways” opens on Friday.
And in spite of every script meeting where studio executives have told Payne, "it has to come from somewhere," he and his writing partner Jim Taylor have responded the same way – with open-ended paeans to life’s idiosyncracies that feel more eloquent with the less they say.
That’s why Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor aren’t sociologists, but they play them in the movies. Like a modern day Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, the famed writing team that produced “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment,” Payne and Taylor display the visual and verbal acuity to reveal humor in the most ordinary of lives, thereby elevating it to the level of extraordinary.
Although the 43-year-old Payne has now made films about high school students, retirees and middle aged men on the verge of a mid-life crisis, the director doesn’t necessarily see his films as being about grappling with varying stages of maturity.
However, he does admit that they are "certainly grappling with life on this planet, and what’s expected of us and that discrepancy between what society seems to expect of us, what we expect of ourselves and then who we really are. There’s always a discrepancy among those things and Jim and I try to make comedy out of that.”
While the duo was fortunate to find a medium that could visually accentuate what Payne calls on the page “an accumulation of small details,” the film business has enjoyed a renaissance of the quirky character studies that populated the screen during the 1970s under their watch. After three films that introduced the world to the likes of Ruth Stoops, Tracy Flick and Warren Schmidt, Payne and Taylor have achieved the type of success as writers that few have ever approached, garnering an Oscar nomination for “Election” and getting Payne the coveted right of final cut on his last two films — a real coup.
The film, which stars Paul Giamatti (“American Splendor”) and Thomas Haden Church (TV’s “Ned and Stacey”) as Miles and Jack, two wayward friends traveling through California wine country days before Jack’s impending wedding, is not only a departure from Payne’s previous Omaha, Nebraska-based films in location, but also in the fast and loose style with which he and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael shoot the Northern California countryside. Almost as if it were bathed in a rich zinfandel, “Sideways” glows visually and aurally, with each of its characters imbued with a type of incidental nobility that is just as freeflowing as the wine and the jazzy score from Payne’s usually nimble composer Rolfe Kent.
“I think jazz goes with wine better than any other type of music,” said Payne. “Also, I wanted a certain feeling of a late 1950s Italian comedy. And jazz was sometimes used in those movies, notably in ‘Big Deal on Madonna Street.’”
But the Marcello Mastroianni comedy is one of the only films he’ll cite as an influence on “Sideways,” since as Payne says, “We draw from life. Not from other movies. Even though we’re all big movie buffs, when it comes time to making a movie, our challenge is to get some version of the real planet onto film, not a carbon copy of elements taken from other films.”
It’s a funny statement from a guy that's been doing so much for them lately. In addition to providing an introduction to the new DVD version of Frederico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” Payne has also been involved in documentaries about films like “A Decade Under the Influence” as an interviewer, and “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” as an interviewee.
With this immersion in nostalgia, it’s not surprising to hear then that Payne will resurrect the black and white palate for “Nebraska,” a comedy about a father and son who head to the state after believing they’ve won the lottery. But audiences will have to wait for “Nebraska.” Currently, he and Taylor are working on yet another screenplay, a comedy set in California with a political bent.
“I want to try all that stuff,” said Payne. “I want to make a silent film. I want to make a Western. I want to shoot in black and white. I’d like to do historical films. I mean, I have a lot of ambitions for films I’d like to do. And I would like to experiment formally more than I have so far.”
However, as Payne's confidence begins to grow and he gravitates more towards the directing aspect of filmmaking, the humanist remains very much intact. In a world filled with cynicism, there aren’t many people in general, let alone in the film industry, who can get away with saying “bless your heart” and mean it, but Payne is one of them.
Perhaps it’s those ingrained Midwestern values at play, though he’s now a registered California voter, and the uneasy mixture may explain everything from his wicked sense of humor onscreen to his calm, gracious demeanor offscreen. Just don’t ask Payne to explain it, let his films do the talking instead.
“I hope every film is in some way a departure from the previous one. I’m always thinking about film style and film craft and what would be proper elements to help convey each particular story. We really just follow our noses as to what we think would be dramatic and what we think would be funny. There’s little I can say about what we intend, or how we do it. It’s just what comes out.”