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A few weeks ago, I met up in New York with the writer-director Alexander Payne, the man most responsible for five of the most celebrated films of the last 15 years — Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), and now The Descendants — for a wide-ranging interview about his life and career. As you can hear for yourself at the top of this post, Payne proved to be one of the most soft-spoken, intelligent, and humble people I’ve encountered in this business… almost jarringly so. Perhaps this is the result of a journey from Omaha (where he was born, raised, and shot all of his films except Sideways and The Descendants) to the Oscars (he was nominated for best adapted screenplay for Election and Sideways, winning for the latter, and also received a best director nom for Sideways) that was anything but easy, and that was the focus of much of our conversation.
Believe it or not, we have Kraft Foods to thank for Payne’s career. In the early sixties, the company sent his family, which ran a restaurant for many years and was a loyal customer, an 8mm projector as a show of gratitude. Payne started watching 8mm films on it with his older brothers, and then, when he turned 14, got a Super-8 camera and started making films of his own.
Payne gravitated toward writing, as well. He penned a humor column for his high school newspaper, was editor of his high school yearbook, and tells The Hollywood Reporter that his “road not taken” was becoming a journalist — indeed, coming out of Stanford University, he applied to and was accepted by Columbia’s School of Journalism, but opted instead to pursue filmmaking at UCLA, one of the five film schools to which he applied. He says he knew he “might suck at it,” but also that he “had to try it… if I didn’t try it I’d always kick myself.”
As it turns out, he excelled at UCLA, and his MFA film The Passion of Martin, which he completed in 1990, was a success on the order of very few other student films ever made. It played at film festivals around the world, landed him a Hollywood agent and studio deal, and convinced him that he’d be directing a feature “within a year.”
He wound up, however, spending the next five years writing what would only years later become About Schmidt (while also making shorts for The Playboy Channel to pay the bills), after which he realized that “my tiny little star had cooled.” It was “a painful time” during which his parents hounded him with questions and comments like, “How much longer are you gonna give it?” and “Why don’t you just get a job as an assistant editor?” and, most biting of all, “We didn’t send you to Stanford to be a waiter!” Asked today how he took the criticism at the time, he laughs, “What was my response? ‘Fuck all y’all!'”
Things began to turn around when he and Jim Taylor, a friend throughout the 1980s who became his roommate in 1989, began writing together in 1991. In 1992, they began Citizen Ruth, a film about an irresponsible woman who becomes pregnant and winds up at the center of a debate about abortion. The project attracted the interest of Laura Dern and a talented supporting cast, who agreed to make the film with Payne as its director, and its critical reception upon its release in 1996 landed him firmly back on the map. He has never left it since, despite fairly long gaps between his subsequent films: three years between Ruth and Election, three years between Election and Schmidt, two years between Schmidt and Sideways, and a full seven years between Sideways and Descendants.
During our time together, I was particularly struck by the fact that Payne, despite having co-written several of the most celebrated scripts of all-time, doesn’t seem to think very much of himself as a writer. “I don’t know how talented I would say I am,” he told me at one point. Asked to name his greatest strength as a writer, he said with a straight face, “I have very good spelling, and my grammar’s quite good.” As for his greatest critical and commercial success, he volunteered, “I genuinely did not expect that success of Sideways. I thought it was kind of a slight film.” And he later confessed, “It’s [only] out of desperation that I write.”
All of this helps to explain why the next two films that Payne is set to direct will be his first two from scripts that he himself was not involved in writing — and why, for so many years, he and Taylor wrote together. (They collaborated on every Payne-directed project until The Descendants, for which Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are credited as his co-writers.) “Writing can be so painful that it’s good to have a compatriot,” he tells me. “We [Jim and I] have a great friendship, and that friendship translated very readily into a good creative collaboration.” Logistically, he explains, they always worked in the same room — “Dick van Dyke style” — usually with one monitor and two keyboards, but sometimes with two monitors and two keyboards that are connected and make it look “like we’re playing Battleship.”
As a director, meanwhile, Payne seems to relish working with good actors, be they character actors (such as Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church on Sideways) or A-list stars (such as Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt or George Clooney on The Descendants), and the feeling certainly appears to be mutual. Clooney — who had actually lobbied Payne for the part in Sideways that eventually went to Church, but who Payne asked to wait for a future collaboration (“I thought we’d get along well, and I’m such a fan of his, but he wasn’t right for that part”) — told me, “I’ve been lucky enough to work with the Coen brothers, and Steven Soderbergh, and Jason Reitman, and Tony Gilroy — really smart, fun directors — Alexander being at the top of that heap… [he makes] it unbelievably happy for all of us.”
Near the end of our time together, Payne suddenly returned to a question that I asked him near the beginning, but that he asked me to give him some additional time to ponder: what does he see as his greatest strength as a filmmaker? Was it his ability to transition so seemlessly between tragedy and comedy, as Clooney had suggested to me; or his ability to get such moving performances out of actors not normally known for giving them, as some critics have opined; or his level-headedness on set, which seems to have attracted great loyalty from his below-the-line collaborators, many of whom have worked with him time and again?
No. His response — pure heartland humility and hokum — was this: “All of filmmaking, I feel, is a constant search for economy — in the writing, in the directing, certainly in the editing — and [I feel as though] I’m achieving a certain economy without sacrificing anything.”
Even if Payne won’t give himself much credit for his work, it seems almost certain that the Academy, just weeks from now, will — not only with a third Oscar nod for best adapted screenplay (his script has already been named the year’s best by the National Board of Review New York Film Critics Circle and nominated by the BFCA and HFPA) and a second nod for best director (the BFCA and HFPA already nominated him in that category, as well), but quite possibly with wins in both categories, as well.
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