Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

by Leo Adam Biga

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780997266702
Publisher: River Junction Press, LLC
Publication date: 09/01/2016
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Leo Adam Biga is an author, freelance journalist and blogger based in Omaha, Nebraska. In pursuit of his cultural journalism Biga cultivates stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. His award-winning work appears in many publications. He is available as an expert commentator, public speaker and workshop presenter.

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Alexander Payne

His Journey in Film

By Leo Adam Biga

River Junction Press LLC

Copyright © 2016 Leo Adam Biga
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9972667-0-2


Election and Citizen Ruth

* * *


A couple things worked to my advantage when I first approached Alexander Payne for an interview in 1997. For starters, I made sure he knew I had not only seen his 1991 UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin, but that I had also screened it at an Omaha art house I was involved with in the early 1990s called the New Cinema Cooperative. My programming actually extended to two additional venues: the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where I ran a rather large film series for several years; and the Joslyn Art Museum, where I was public relations director and organized occasional film events on the side.

I had become aware of Payne through an item I read about him in the local daily, The Omaha World-Herald. Since I did programming and publicity for the now defunct New Cinema, I filed away his name and the title of his film and when the time was right I prevailed upon my fellow cineastes to allow The Passion of Martin on the schedule. I cannot recall what kind of audience the film by the then-obscure young filmmaker drew. But it's a good bet no more than a few dozen souls saw it at our makeshift downtown theater in a former storefront we renovated ourselves. If memory serves, the site was once part of the Omaha Film Exchange and included a forbidding walk-in vault where the canisters containing nitrate stock features and short subjects were stored in an earlier era.

I was highly motivated to do a first-rate interview-profile of Payne for The Reader. When he made his first feature, Citizen Ruth, in our shared hometown of Omaha in 1995 I was neither covering arts-culture stories on a regular basis nor yet contributing to The Reader. I was mainly freelancing for other publications when a former local television news anchor profiled Payne in The Reader. I thought the piece unworthy of a filmmaker of Payne's talent. By that time I had seen Citizen Ruth and in my eyes that film more than fulfilled the promise The Passion of Martin heralded.

Still, I seem to recall having to pitch hard to convince The Reader's editors they should turn me, by then only a fledgling contributor, loose on an extensive cover piece about a still somewhat unproven filmmaker they had profiled only two years earlier. My passionate conviction that Payne was a world-class artist-in-the-making got me the green light I sought and I tackled the assignment with vigor.

As a film buff I felt I could connect with Payne, and in a sense speak his language. By that I do not mean talking shop, as I am not a filmmaker and I do not pretend to know its technical side. Rather, I felt my aesthetic appreciation for cinema and my fairly good grounding in cinema history would resonate with him. Indeed, that is exactly what he responded to, along with, I suspect, the genuine enthusiasm I expressed for his work and, hopefully, the considered questions I asked and observations I made during our two-hour talk.

I think he may have also respected me for holding strong opinions about certain films and filmmakers and for not being afraid to challenge some of his own opinions. My having been a film programmer also helped because his own early discovery of cinema had been informed by film programs just like the ones I worked on. In fact, he has often referenced in interviews the film series he frequented at the Joslyn Art Museum (before I was there) and the art film screenings he attended at the Admiral and Dundee theaters, both within walking distance of the mid-town home he grew up in.

That first interview I did with him took place within days of his concluding pre-production on Election and starting to shoot the film. As the production got under way I did have one opportunity to visit the set but I was not able to make it. I did do a follow-up interview with Payne by phone, and I also did phoners with one of the producers, Albert Berger, and with the film's star, Matthew Broderick.

My object with the piece was to take the measure of the up-and-coming writer-director in a serious profile worthy of The New Yorker or The New York Times. I do not claim to have attained that goal, I will leave that for you the reader to discern, but I was satisfied with the results. I do not recall Payne's specific response to the article but let's just say he appreciated the effort that went into it, and from the time it was published in early 1998 until now he's accorded me interview after interview and, in some cases, exclusive access to his sets.

The profile that follows is by no means comprehensive. However, I believe it was the most in-depth piece done on him up to that time and it forms the foundation upon which I have built all the Payne stories I have filed since. So, as seen in this light, you will be gleaning my strongest first impressions of a filmmaker whom I pegged to be a major force in world cinema and whom I felt confident I would be covering for the rest of my journalistic career.

A final note before releasing you to read the piece: If there is one thing I do in covering Payne and that perhaps I used to do more of then than now, it is providing a certain context in which to better understand him and his work. The context I refer to will become clearer as you read more of my Payne work and learn about the influences, themes, concerns, obsessions, and compulsions that permeate his methodology and mise-en-scène. As the stories that appear in this tome are presented roughly in the order in which I wrote them, they form a progressive prism for looking at his filmography. It is my hope that this Alexander Payne primer reveals more than the sum of its parts in schooling you about the filmmaker and his work.

Alexander Payne: portrait of a young filmmaker

Published in a 1998 issue of The Reader

* * *

Alexander Payne


Darryl Zanuck. Fred Astaire. Henry Fonda. Dorothy McGuire. Montgomery Clift. Marlon Brando. Sandy Dennis. Nick Nolte. Enduring film icons and Nebraskans all. Now add the name of thirty-six-year-old writer-director Alexander Payne to this list of native sons and daughters who have made their mark in cinema. Born and raised in Omaha, Payne made an impressive feature debut with the funky 1996 abortion comedy, Citizen Ruth, and is sure to make waves again with his second feature, Election, which wrapped shooting in Omaha December 15 and is slated for a summer release.

The made-in-Omaha Citizen Ruth netted wide critical praise for its satiric take on the pro-life–pro-choice debate, revealing Payne to be a keen social observer with an ironic sensibility. Payne, who is single and lives in Los Angeles, is a gifted artist. He's smart, witty, confident, yet refreshingly grounded. He knows exactly what he's after and how to get it. He's also brash and passionate enough to make delightfully subversive films far outside the Hollywood mainstream. Those who know him admire his agile mind, his unmannered sincerity, his barbed humor.

He has the cachet to make films anywhere, but continues coming back here to shoot his quirky independent pictures. Indeed, he remains fiercely loyal to his hometown, whose currents reverberate deeply within him. "I feel so strongly about shooting in Omaha," he said. "In nursing and nudging Election along, I made it clear I wanted to shoot here, and the producers said, 'Well, you can shoot this anywhere.' But I don't want to fake it. It's not the same thing. There's an atmosphere I want to get and be faithful to — about how people are. I want it to be real, I want it to be where I'm comfortable and where deep buttons in me are pressed."

Election co-producer Albert Berger feels Payne is well attuned to Omaha's zeitgeist. "I had never been in Omaha before, but interestingly enough I sensed an attitude that was very much Alexander's," Berger said. "There's a sort of courteous, formal presentation or exterior of normality, with a bizarre, eccentric, biting humor just beneath it, and I saw that time and time again ... so I'm not surprised Alexander came from Omaha and he's making the type of movies he is there. I feel he is very much of that place."

Payne agrees, but can't quite pinpoint the source of his sardonic streak other than to speculate: "Maybe historically, the fact the weather is so cruel on the Plains that for survival there's bred a sense of humor about it all." If nothing else, his humor is informed by Omaha's small town–big city schizophrenia. "There's always this tight-assed onservative element here that's very irritating," he said, "that doesn't think anything is funny except Marmaduke and Family Circus. But then there's this whole other Omaha I grew up with of really smart, funny, caustic people."

His cutting humor has no shortage of targets. In Citizen Ruth he lampooned the hypocrisy of pro-life–pro-choice extremists. In Election he exposes the hollowness of School-Suburbia USA rituals.

The role of satirist seems to fit Payne well, but he feels his career is too young to assign him a signature style just yet: "I don't like to analyze it too closely," he said, "because so far this type of stuff is just what comes naturally to me. And I almost fear that analyzing it too much will make me too self-conscious or make me think there's no rules. You know? I'm still just figuring it out."

The comedy of imperfection

Election, which Payne and his Citizen Ruth writing collaborator, Jim Taylor, adapted from the soon-to-be-published novel of the same name by Boston writer Tom Perrotta, promises to be Payne's breakthrough film. Why? Because the material retains the mordant, mercurial sensibility of his debut feature, but is neither likely to be as difficult for its studio (MTV Films, Paramount Pictures) to market nor as hard for audiences to stomach as the earlier film was, with its raw-nerve subject matter. Plus, Election stars two young, appealing crossover actors in Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon who should attract the very demographic the film will surely target (ages 18 to 34).

The film, like the book, revolves around a high school teacher, Jim McAllister (Broderick), who, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, acts rashly and rigs a student election, setting in motion a series of seriocomic events that change the lives of everyone involved. Broderick should have just the right innocent deadpan persona (like his idol Buster Keaton) for the part. Much of the script's sly humor stems from normally upstanding folks behaving badly under pressure.

As Payne puts it, "All these horrible, pathetic things happen, but it's not as though any of the characters is bad, they're just doing it all for the first time. They just don't know any better."

For all its strengths, Citizen Ruth never quite fleshed-out the title character, Ruth Stoops. Payne and Taylor used her more as a siphon and symbol to comment on the absurd lengths pro-life–pro-choice activists go to, rather than develop her as a person with complex emotional shadings. Her escape at the end makes a strong statement, but tells us nothing we don't already know. While it's hard to believe anyone with a sense of humor could be offended by Citizen Ruth, the film surely put off some viewers who strongly identify with one side or the other of the abortion issue.

With Election, Payne isn't shying away from skewering more sacred cows, but is mining a richer vein of Americana than he attempted before. Where Citizen Ruth often settled for broad sketches, Election promises to probe more deeply into the lives of characters and the milieu they inhabit. And, at least as scripted, the new film allows room for its protagonists to grow somewhat through their ordeal.

Payne feels Election, with its fuller palette of colors, should prove to be "a much stronger film" than his first feature. "Citizen Ruth is particular in its having fun with stereotypes," he said. "It's funny and interesting, but this is a richer piece of material. It's got a more complex, nuanced human canvas. There's nothing schematic about it. I mean, once you figure out what's going on in Citizen Ruth you still might enjoy the film, but you kind of know where it's heading. This one, you don't really know what's going to happen next."

Ask him what Election is all about and he sighs, wearily weighing your question with one of his own: "How to articulate it? I don't know ... It's very human and it's very real, it's about life. It's like life — I can't sum it up. I hope always to make movies that can't be easily summed up."

Payne doesn't pander to audiences. His leading characters don't neatly conform to post-modern Hollywood's idea of winning protagonists. Instead, they're whimsically, tragically, unpredictably human. And because they're so authentic they engage us in ways "nice" characters often don't. Ruth Stoops is a pregnant inhalant addict who's made a mess of her life and is unrepentant about it. She's also street-smart and disarmingly honest. Jim McAllister is a philandering hypocrite who takes his hurt out on one of his students. He's also hardworking and surprisingly vulnerable.

Broderick wanted to do Election because it offered a chance to play "a complicated person, and not a terribly charming one," he said, adding: "I loved the script. For one thing, it was very literate. A lot of scripts are very hard to get through, but this was a very easy read. It was funny and sad. It made me want to know what was going to happen next. Alexander's very original, I think. He's a very careful, detailed director. He's very intelligent. He's funny, too."

He also liked Payne's handling of the material, which in lesser hands could easily have been superficial: "He's sympathetic to the characters, even when they do stupid things. He doesn't look down on the characters from some kind of higher moral ground. They're all very human. He doesn't categorize people. People aren't either perfect or evil, smart or stupid, they're all a mix of things."

But as Payne well knows, some stodgier segments of Omaha don't appreciate his irreverent humor. Omaha Public School officials were wary enough to deny him the use of Burke High School for Election. The film's Neo–Peyton Place school scenes were eventually shot (during normal school hours) at Papillion–La Vista High School [serving the Papillion and La Vista suburbs bordering southwest Omaha]. Payne resists any suggestion his comic sensibility is vulgar: "I think, for example, that Citizen Ruth has an amoral protagonist, yet it's a very moral film. The same thing now with Election. There's a lot of irresponsible and immoral behavior in the film, but I believe strongly that it's a very responsible and moral film."


A Hollywood outsider, despite still living in L.A. and getting his financing there (he plans on moving to New York City by year's end), Payne dislikes much of today's nouveau hip American cinema. "Hollywood, in the last few years, has produced films which take the attitude, 'Oh, isn't this cool, we have amoral characters,'" he said. "But in completely unredeeming, nihilistic films that simply anticipate moments of violence, rather than being about people in complex ways, I don't get much out of nihilism."

He finds most contemporary comedies wanting too. "I'm bored with most American comedies because they're about nothing. The attitude is, 'Oh, it's comedy, it's just fluff.' But, in fact, comedy should be about something. It's just another form of communication about experience and emotion."

Although Payne is generations removed from legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder, with whom he's been compared, he greatly admires the writer-director's acerbic, irony-laced style. In preparation for Citizen Ruth Payne screened Wilder's Ace in the Hole (about an unscrupulous reporter exploiting a human tragedy). One of his favorite Wilder films is the 1960 Best Picture Oscar winner, The Apartment, whose story of deceit in the bedrooms and boardrooms of middle-class America echoes that of Election, only Payne is substituting schoolrooms for boardrooms.

"I think The Apartment is sooooo good," he said. "People remember it as a cute film about a guy (Jack Lemmon) giving his apartment to his bosses for their afternoon liaisons, but you see it again and you have to take a shower afterwards. It's genuinely depressing. People see Billy Wilder's work as cynical and dark and all that, but it's really at the same time loving and playful with people."

It's precisely the same balance Payne tries striking. In Jim McAllister, Payne gives us an Everyman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A man mired in a rut and desperate for a change. Payne describes him this way: "He's a very American protagonist, somehow. Optimistic. Boyish. Idealistic. Naïve. And tragic, because he's in denial about real things going on in his life and how he really feels about things, and it kind of leads to his downfall."

He could be describing Jack Lemmon's character in The Apartment, so alike are the two figures. How appropriate then that Broderick, who shares Lemmon's intuitive grasp of tragic-comic roles, and Payne, who shares Wilder's penchant for subversive satire, should collaborate on a film resonating so strongly with the Lemmon-Wilder canon.


Excerpted from Alexander Payne by Leo Adam Biga. Copyright © 2016 Leo Adam Biga. Excerpted by permission of River Junction Press LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword: Alexander Payne's Omaha: A Quixotic Appreciation Timothy Schaffert xi

Foreword: Alexander Payne's Indiewood: An Essay Thomas Schatz xiii

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Election and Citizen Ruth 9

Alexander Payne: portrait of a young filmmaker 12

Alexander Payne's emergence as a rising filmmaker 23

Chapter 2 About Schmidt 27

Alexander Payne discusses his new feature starring Jack Nicholson, working with the star, past projects and future plans 29

Being Jack Nicholson 37

About About Schmidt: the shoot, editing, working with Jack and the film after the cutting room floor 42

Conquering Cannes, Omaha native Alexander Payne's triumphant Cannes debut 50

About Schmidt, Payne and an intersection 58

Alexander Payne on his new film: Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus 66

Chapter 3 The Sideways Diaries 75

Hollywood dispatch: on the set with Alexander Payne-a rare, intimate, inside look at Payne, his process, and the making of his new film, Sideways 77

A road trip sideways: Alexander Payne's circuitous journey to a new film 91

Chapter 4 Taking Stock 99

Alexander Payne's post-Sideways blues 102

Scuba Diving with Alexander Payne: in the wake of his Oscar win and divorce, the filmmaker draws inward and reflects on the new status he owns and what it may mean to his work 109

"Every day I'm not directing, I feel like I die a little" Catching up with Alexander Payne-after a year of largely producing-writing other people's projects, he sets his sights on his next film 117

Size matters: the return of Alexander Payne, not that he was ever gone 125

Chapter 5 Payne as Auteur and Collaborator 135

Jim Taylor, the other half of Hollywood's top screenwriting team, talks about his work with Alexander Payne 140

Film Currents 145

Alexander Payne's 2007 curated World Cinema Series 147

A Decade under the influence 155

Collaborations: Payne and Dern on working together When Laura Met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne get deep about making Citizen Ruth and their shared cinema sensibilities 162

Alexander Payne and Debra Winger hold court for Feature Film Event '09 169

The Soderbergh experience: Alexander Payne and Kurt Andersen weigh in on America's most prolific and accomplished filmmaker of their generation 172

Chapter 6 The Descendants 179

Alexander Payne, George Clooney, and Co. find love, pain and the whole damn thing shooting The Descendants in Hawaii 183

Hail, hail The Descendants. Alexander Payne's first feature film since Sideways a hit with critics. George Clooney-starring comedy-drama sure to be an awards contender 190

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, producer Tim Burke, and actress Shailene Woodley discuss working with Alexander Payne on The Descendants and Kaui Hart Hemmings comments on the adaptation of her novel 194

Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the symbiosis behind his film and her novel The Descendants and her role in helping get Hawaii right 198

Two-Time Oscar-Winner Payne delivers another screen gem with The Descendants and further enhances his cinema standing 204

Alexander Payne delivers graceful Oscar tributes-the winner for Best Adapted Screenplay recognizes Clooney, Hemmings, and his mom 207

Chapter 7 Nebraska 209

Payne's Nebraska a blend of old and new as he brings Indiewood back to the state and reconnects with cried and true crew on his first black and white film 223

Alexander Payne's Nebraska comes home to roost 232

When a film becomes a film: the shaping of Nebraska 239

Casting director John Jackson helps build Alexander Payne's film worlds 247

Alexander Payne's new film Nebraska features a senior cast and aging themes in a story sure to resonate with many viwers 250

Local color: Payne and Co. mine the prairie poetry of Nebraska 258

Nebraska Connection Salon Q & A with Alexander Payne: the filmmaker speaks candidly about Nebraska, casting, screenwriting and craft 265

Chapter 8 Downsizing 273

Payne's film about miniaturized human life tackles big themes: Downsizing finally go before the cameras 280

Chapter 9 The Wrap 285

Discussion Guide with Index 299

A comprehensive guide to quotes and topics chronicling the twenty year career of filmmaker Alexander Payne

1 Getting Started and Family 300

2 Sense of Place 300

3 Realism and Humanism 301

4 Comic/Tragic 302

5 Meaning and Morality 303

6 Characters 304

7 Personal Films/Filmmaking 305

8 Directing 306

9 Editing and Sound 306

10 Writing 307

11 Jim Taylor, Writing Partner 308

12 Photography 309

13 Casting and Auditions 311

14 Actors and Acting 312

15 Producers and Production Company 313

16 Film Team 314

17 Audiences and Film Festivals 314

18 Work for Hire and Work for Friends 315

19 Studios, Financing, Budgets 316

20 Films and Filmmakers Payne Admires 318

Alexander Payne Filmography and Awards 319

Acknowledgments 323

About the Author 325

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